EVERY semester, on the first day of the expository writing class Sven Birkerts teaches at Harvard, he asks his students to give him written answers to a few brief questions. He wants to know about their backgrounds, their high school English classes, and their outside reading - specifically, how much they read, what they read, and what their favorite books are. Simple enough. Yet the responses, Mr. Birkerts reports, are heartbreaking. In an article entitled ``What, Me Read?'' in the current issue of Harvard Magazine, he explains that almost none of his students read independently.
Their excuses vary: ``Too busy.'' ``I wish I had the time!'' ``I've always had a hard time with books that are supposed to be good for me.''
Then, in what might be the ultimate insult to a literature-loving Harvard instructor, some of them proudly admit, ``If I have the time, I like to relax with Stephen King.''
``I can't tell you how many of my best and brightest have written that sentence,'' Birkerts notes sadly. ``Stephen King, Stephen King, Stephen King. How rarely someone will cite a reputable `serious' book - by Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, anyone.''
Nonfiction, he adds, ``is terra incognita.''
If Birkerts, now beginning his sixth year at Harvard, were writing about students at a community college or a state university, his findings might not be surprising. But Harvard! Ivy Leaguers hardly seem to be prime candidates for the observation he makes about his students: ``The printed page taxes and wearies them; they find little pleasure there.''
In the 1950s, the best-selling book ``Why Johnny Can't Read'' set off a heated national debate about student literacy. Today, a companion volume could be titled ``Why Johnny Won't Read.''
In an electronic age, it is easy - too easy - to point an accusing finger at television and computers as competitors for a reader's time. But no one can ignore other factors that conspire to keep students from the printed page, among them the demands of teen-age jobs and the lure of shopping malls.
Nor can anyone underestimate the subtle effects of a pervasive national restlessness. Reading is so sedentary, so solitary! Serious reading, moreover, requires not merely time but energy. Energy for active mental participation. Energy to absorb ideas. Energy to savor words and phrases, to exult silently in the miracle of language.
Finally, those who care about books cannot ignore what appears to be a growing hostility in some quarters to serious literature. Just as Birkerts's article was rolling off presses on the East Coast, angry parents on the West Coast were successfully petitioning the Boron, Calif., school board to ban J.D. Salinger's ``The Catcher in the Rye'' from a high school reading list.
Their action came just as People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C., group opposing censorship, reported 172 attempts to ban books during the 1988-89 school year - up from 157 the previous year. In addition to the Salinger novel, literary classics such as John Steinbeck's ``Of Mice and Men'' and plays by Arthur Miller and Aristophanes have been frequent targets.
Still, does it really matter if intelligent, educated young people choose not to read beyond the occasional Stephen King blockbuster? Birkerts insists it does.
``I believe ... that one cannot write well if one does not read,'' he states. ``Writing - effective, memorable writing - depends upon hearing the language. ... If you can't hear words and their arrangements - the music that accompanies and enforces meaning - then you can't write. Certainly not well.''
As evidence, he cites the papers his own best-and-brightest students turn in. ``Immigrant prose,'' he calls their writing - monotonous, lacking musicality, depth, and complexity.
Theirs is not the first generation to shy away from reading for pleasure. Nearly 45 percent of American adults do not read a book in the course of a year. If successive generations continue the pattern, will the excuse ``Too busy'' become the epitaph for serious books?
Birkerts frames his concern in a rhetorical question: ``Will the world be different if people stop reading?'' Then he answers, ``Very likely it will once again be flat.''
Just like the prose of all the non-readers in his class.