How do we consider Nelson Mandela from America? I think our general opinion of him is positive, but I would bet that most of us really know very little about him other than there was a long campaign to get him freed from South African prisons during the decades of Apartheid and that he became the president of his country after reform of voting laws. Most of us know little of his background and why he was imprisoned. Few of us could quote from his speeches. Instead, he is a well-liked personality to rank with George Washington or Martin Luther King - beloved but not really understood. He deserves more of our attention.
As a famous person, he is the subject of several photobiographies, including Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs from 2009. Most of this book is filled with large photographs of the subject at many stages in his life. Understandably, more than half were taken after his release in 1990, as he has been in the public eye constantly since then. The photos tend to be just Mandela at his best, ever smiling and greeting others with warmth. Only so much can be learned from them. Luckily for readers, the editors also included six of Mandela's most famous speeches. In these, especially "No Easy Walk to Freedom" from September 21, 1953 (page 11) and "An Ideal for Which I Am Prepared to Die" from April 20, 1964 (page 55), we get to read what the subject has to say about himself and his country. Without them, this book is a bit shallow. With them, it serves as a good introduction to a long life.
The editors obviously just considered this a coffee-table book to be purchased by the modestly affluent. They did little to help its reference value, as there is not even a table of contents to help readers find the speeches, much less an index to find Mandela at court, in prison, abroad, or as president. It will help students looking for pictures, but it could have been much more.
I am not certain what to recommend for someone wanting to really study Mandela. Certainly Mandela's own memoir Long Walk to Freedom (1994) should be considered, and In His Own Words, a collection of speeches might be added. Mandela: The Authorized Biography by Anthony Sampson is well regarded; Kirkus seemed to think it was objective. Mandela: A Critical Life by Tom Lodge is a well-reviewed modest size book that might better fit a busy reader. Otherwise, there are countless juvenile biographies. It seems that in a world with dozens of books about George Bush (father and son), Barack Obama, Princess Diana, every Kennedy, Elvis, and Michael Jackson, there should be more on Mandela.
Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs. Sterling Press, 2009. ISBN 9781402777073