New York — Mortimer J. Adler fears that America's youth is losing the reading habit.
A philosopher, teacher, television host, and author (his latest books are ''Six Great Ideas'' and ''The Paideia Proposal''), Mr. Adler says: ''I don't think children in school are taught to read anymore. I'm not talking about functional literacy; I'm talking about real reading.
''The worst thing is this: You can go to any college in the country, as I have, get all the seniors together in one room, and ask what books all of them have read in common. I doubt there will be more than one or two books. It all stems from the fact that we've lost the sense of what general culture is.''
Mr. Adler was one of the founders of the Great Books Foundation some 35 years ago. Does he feel the United States has come a great distance culturally since then?
''No,'' he says, shaking his head sadly. ''I think there is less popular demand for culture now than before.''
Since the Great Books Foundation set out to make available the 100 most important books of our civilization, are these the books Mr. Adler would choose to take along with him if he were marooned on a desert island?
Out comes the mischievous laugh of a youngster. ''That is a question I've been asked more than once. First of all, before I answer I want to make some conditions. I don't like the idea of a desert island - it must be a luxurious tropical island with all the amenities of life - tennis court, golf links, beach , good food, no work, no radio, no TV. So, which books?
''Thucydides' 'History of the Peloponnesian War,' 'The Early Dialogues of Plato,' 'The Ethics and Politics of Arisotle,' 'The Confessions of St. Augustine ,' Plutarch's 'Lives,' Dante's 'Divine Comedy,' selections from Thomas Aquinas's 'Summa Theologia,' Shakespeare's plays, Montaigne's essays, 'Gulliver's Travels, ' John Stuart Mills's 'Essay on Representative Government,' Tolstoy's 'War and Peace.' ''
No contemporary authors?
He shakes his head vigorously. ''No. Is there any contemporary author of similar stature? The books that I mention are books you can read and reread. There are darn few 20th-century books that are worth reading more than once. The books I've mentioned I've already read 15 or 20 times.''
Mr. Adler, author of about 20 books, written while he also attended to his duties as chairman of the board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, director at the Institute for Philosophical Research, and senior associate of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, has to be on his way to the airport to catch a plane to the University of North Carolina. What book is he taking with him to read aboard the plane?
He smiles sheepishly and blushes. ''You've really caught me with that one. The fact is I'm going down there to discuss my new book, 'The Paideia Proposal,' which calls for a basic reform of American schools. So, I've brought a copy of that book to read on the plane to remind me of what it says.''
But, that wasn't really essential. If necessary, prolific thinker-writer Mortimer J. could have written another book during the trip down to North Carolina.