MY BIG season for reading new books starts in mid-May when I turn in my spring semester grades. This year Nelson Mandela came to visit right then and that took care of most of my recreational reading. But I did get through a couple of splendid old books. Gore Vidal's Burr (Ballantine paperback) provided a lively, irreverent and dyspeptic romp through the Revolution and the early years of the Republic. Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper & Row) tells the story of the civic and political contributions African-Americans made even as they were emerging from slavery, and gives us a far better sense of the richness of American history and the great loss the nation suffered because of the cynical Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877.
The Mandela visit was so intense that for weeks after he had left, I was still dreaming about insoluble problems. So I took Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (Bantam paperback) and The Black Marble by Joseph Wambaugh (Dell paperback) on vacation. I don't remember much about them except that a lot of people got killed and the bad guys got caught and when I finished them, I no longer dreamt about how I was going to find a plane to charter from Oakland to Dublin.
And then there was the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, who gave us the elegant volume, The Venus Hottentot (University Press of Virginia paperback), which brought Mandela back into my life in a lovely way in "A Poem for Nelson Mandela":
My life is black and filled with fortune
. . . Nelson Mandela
is with me because I am a black girl
who honors her elders, who loves
her grandfather, who is a black daughter
as Mandela's daughters are black
daughters . . .
My life is black and filled with fortune because of young black people like Elizabeth Alexander and because of black elders like Nelson Mandela and because a long time ago a lot of people took the time and the trouble to teach me to read. Even today lots of black youngsters just aren't that lucky. ROGER WILKINS Professor of history at George Mason University; coordinator of Mandela's U.S. visit