NONFICTION

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference , by David J. Garrow (Vintage, $10.95). This monumental biography of the Nobel laureate, cleric and leader of the civil rights movement -- for many people the conscience of modern America -- is by a professor of political science at the City College of New York. Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the seventh annual Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, it is marked by candor, compassion, meticulous scholarship and good prose.

Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence , three volumes, edited with commentary by Warren F. Kimball (Princeton University Press, $49.50). It is perhaps the most prestigious salutation of the 20th century: "Personal and Secret From the Former Naval Person to the President" -- so would begin another coded message from the British prime minister to the American commander-in-chief. For 5 1/2 years the two leaders exchanged nearly 2,000 telegrams, letters and memoranda about their war to the death against the Axis powers, the difficulties of dealing with "Uncle Joe" Stalin, and the crumbling prospects for a peaceful postwar world. Here is the record of their exchange, scrupulously and fully annotated. Every serious student of World War II -- and the Cold War -- will want to own them.

The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made , by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (Touchstone, $12.95). The six friends were Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan and Dean Acheson. With the addition of a very few other names, these men might be said to have constituted the heart of the Establishment in this country as it existed from, say, 1940 to 1968. Between them they ran the Pentagon and the State Department and advised the president -- in other words created and directed the foreign policy of the United States at the climax of what has been called "the American Century." Despise them or venerate them, they played a high-stakes game of geopolitical poker -- many would say they played it very well. This is the story of their friendship, vividly told against a background of momentous events and difficult decisions.

The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain , by David Smurthwaite (Michael Joseph/Viking Penguin, $14.95) Britain is a small country every square yard of whose terrain, it seems, is cubed (or better) by history. One of the more fascinating guides to its riches is this large, beautifully illustrated tour of over 100 British battlefields -- from the Roman invasion of 55 B.C. to the Battle of Britain of 1940 -- by the Keeper of Printed Books and Manuscripts at the National Army Museum in London. The great clashes -- Maldon, Hastings, Bosworth Field, Marston Moor, Culloden -- and many lesser ones are wonderfully brought to life with brief historical explanations, government survey maps of the sites (and more or less how to get there), battle-plan sketches, photographs, documents and paintings.

Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark , by Phyllis Theroux (Penguin, $6.95). It is very hard to write about parenthood -- and children -- without being either cynical or sentimental. In this collection of columns, written originally for Parents magazine, Phyllis Theroux has solved this dilemma with an irresistible combination of common sense and good humor. Although she may begin with such apparently unarguable statements as "One of the major responsibilities of parenthood is to educate children," by the time she's through it's anyone's guess who is doing the educating.

Icebound: The Jeanette Expedition's Quest for the North Pole , by Leonard F. Guttridge (Paragon House, $9.95). In the annals of polar exploration, the 1879 American expedition aboard the USS Jeanette is one of those disasters that make for better stories than the triumphs. Their ship squeezed by ice until it cracked like an eggshell, the explorers had to trek several hundred miles over ice to the Siberian coast. Some of them died en route, and Victorian squeamishness about matters venereal has kept the full truth from public scrutiny until the publication of this riveting account.