At the end of a report on American education, Time magazine asked a number of thinkers who were probably just standing around, waiting for the bell to ring: ''What five books should every educated person have read?''
The reading list is, of course, an old game, and even tossing in the obligatory desert island to give it urgency doesn't really work any more. Some of Time's invited guests refused to play at all, and while ''The Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book'' made no lists, a few cranky items did appear. Furthermore, one participant airily ignored the rule of five and sputtered out some 27 names before they could cut him off - nominating pretty much the complete works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not to mention A. E. Housman.
The trouble is, even when they know these things don't count, Americans tend to act as if there is A Correct Answer.
Wilfrid Sheed, who is at least half-English - see his novel ''Transatlantic Blues'' - admitted he had read only two of the five masterpieces he advised everybody else to read. Our circle has invented its own parlor game: guessing which two books Mr. Sheed has read. The consensus so far is that he never made it through ''The Divine Comedy,'' and probably caved on ''The Confessions of St. Augustine.'' The vote splits on Plato's ''Republic.'' There is a lot of confidence he has read ''one of Shakespeare's tragedies,'' and quite a bit of confidence - possibly misplaced - that he reached the end of ''The Brothers Karamazov'' (page 877 in our edition).
In defense of the man who ran amok - James R. Killian Jr., retired president of MIT, who presumably lost his abacus - no true sportsman of lists would settle for five choices. Even the best-dressed and worst-movies-of-the-year games allow ten.
Cyril Connolly permitted himself a round 100 when selecting modern classics. The novelist and critic Brigid Brophy, if memory serves, got involved in a list that counted up to 50.
Now we are back with the English, who possess the whimsey, indeed the eccentricity, to play these games the way they should be played - as acts of intellectual one-upmanship. In those quarters you get none of the fatal American uncertainty - the feeling that the whole business is presumptuous and, well, not quite democratic.
Our favorite book of book lists is ''The List of Books,'' a compendium of 3, 000 titles by Kenneth McLeish, a Scotsman out of Oxford, and Frederic Raphael, who was actually born in Chicago but only while passing through, on his way to St. John's College, Cambridge and a list of British screenplay credits running from ''Darling'' to ''The Glittering Prizes.''
Raphael and McLeish do not mince opinions:
''Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 'The Scarlet Letter' (1850). No need to continue to seek the Great American Novel; this was it.''
Thirteen graphic symbols give a quick signal if the book is ''a particular pleasure to read,'' or a ''major masterpiece,'' a ''seminal book that changed our thinking,'' a ''difficult'' book but ''worth persevering,'' an ''infuriating'' book but ''possibly illuminating,'' and so on.
We would not, of course, trust the list as far as we could shred it. List-makers have other things to do than to be reliable.
List-makers should be provocateurs - promoters of dissension.
They may well be interested in what they list, but they are certainly interested in upsetting the lists of others. Raphael and McLeish are masters of this unexpected-alternative ploy. They must put Dostoevsky on their list, but not for them ''The Brothers Karamazov'' of the mainstream. ''Notes from the House of the Dead'' is their nominee.
Above all, the best list-makers value themselves - and so they should be valued - for their commentaries, their throwaway lines.
Back to Sheed. Viewing the contact sport of making lists, he mused: ''Arguing is a game of skill with fairly clear wins, losses, and stalemates. When one of these is perceived, disengage, withdraw, cease babbling. Do something.''
That would make our list of best-advice-on-list-making - even if some misguided master of the games limited us to five.
Incidentally, Frederic Raphael put himself on his own list - right under Rabelais. That's just the kind of spunk we admire in a list-maker.