ITALIANS may be known for dressing fashionably, eating fine foods, and driving fast cars. They are not known for reading.
If a book interests them, write journalists Indro Montanelli and Beniamino Placido in a recent work of their own, Italians avoid buying it at all costs and try to get a complimentary copy from the author or publisher, get a friend to buy it for them, borrow it from a library, or even steal it.
Books likely to be in an Italian's home, they add, are a Roman Catholic missal, an almanac, a cookbook, and a guide to winning the lottery.
Newton Compton is trying to change that. The Italian publishing company began producing short books by leading authors at a price of 1,000 lira (about 60 cents), complete with introduction, bibliography, and author biography.
''Our idea was to create important books, fundamental books of 100 pages that you can keep on your bookshelf,'' says Vittorio Avanzini, president of Newton Compton, based in Rome.
The idea - originated by Newton Compton and later copied in other countries - was a hit: Since the first book came off the presses in June 1992, 55 million copies have been sold in Italy. The company's small margin of profit comes from printing paperbacks on cheap paper by what it hopes will be crowd-pleasing authors.
You can hardly go to a newsstand or a bookstore without seeing several of the company's 236 titles displayed. And Italian students often reserve a bookshelf for a block of the 1,000-lira books.
The books sell because they don't take long to read, the writers are important, and the cost is less than that of a daily newspaper, says Mr. Avanzini. If you've got a long train trip ahead, you can break the monotony with thoughtful writers such as Franz Kafka or Seneca, the Roman philosopher.
If you want to pass the time under the beach umbrella, you can pick up a mystery by Agatha Christie or Edgar Wallace.
''The concept is excellent,'' says Maria Antonella Nicoletti, a literature student at the University of Rome who has read several of the 1,000-lira books.
But she has a complaint shared by other Italian readers: If the book wasn't originally written in Italian, it may not read well. ''You see something that's not very clear, and you understand it's not very well translated,'' she says.
Still, the books are bringing people into bookstores who never used to visit them, says Tulio De Mauro, a linguistics professor at the University of Rome. ''We aren't used to investing in books,'' he says. ''The low cost attracts potential readers.''
Although Italy is among the world's seven most-industrialized nations, it has the literacy rate of an underdeveloped country, he adds. According to a recent study, nearly 1 in 3 Italians is illiterate.
In 1951, when Italy was still rising from the ashes of World War II, 65 percent of Italians didn't even have a grammar-school diploma. In the next couple of decades, Italy experienced what has become known as ''the economic miracle,'' which transformed the country into one of the world's wealthiest nations.
''The country became rich remaining ignorant, with the widespread impression that it was possible to go forward this way,'' he says.
The Newton Compton initiative could help change that mentality. Avanzini says the company receives 300 letters a week from readers, 70 percent of them related to the 1,000-lira books. In many cases, he says, the readers propose titles they would like to see offered in the future.