RUBIK'S CUBE is (1) maddening, (2) addictive, and

(3) a major contributor to the decline in our national productivity. I urge you to avoid it. But if you can't--and are not a genius with lots of time on your hands--you will need some help.

A glance at the best-seller lists shows that plenty of help is available. No fewer than three of these instructin manuals are best sellers: Don Taylor's Mastering Rubik's Cube and Patrick Bossert's You Can Do the Cube recently appeared as numbers two and eight, respectively, on the paperback trade list both locally and nationally, and James G. Nourse's The Simple Solution to Rubik's Cube as third locally and second nationally in the mass market. Czes Kosniowski's Conquer That Cube, with colored illustrations, is also on sale at local bookstores. A buyer's guide is obviously needed.

While they differ in strategy, terminology, graphics, and clarity of exposition, any of the four manuals will enable you to complete the cube with the instructions before you--though this is an acid test of your ability to follow instructions. But they all make it unnecessarily difficult to learn how to complete the cube without turning to the book each time.

Exposition of the basic solution takes Bossert 74 pages (partly because of his graphic depiction of each move), while each of the other three takes less than 20 slightly larger pages. Taylor relies most heavily on verbal instructions, Nourse on the use of formulae, and Bossert and Kosniowski on pictures. If one wants to understand why certain sequences of moves have the effects they do (rather than just memorize them), Bossert comes the closest to showing this by means of his illustrations of the effects of numerous "tricks." Nourse makes no attempt to do so, and the other two do so only with respect to some of the later stages of the solution.

Taylor, Nourse and Kosniowski use the same strategy for the first three stages--the first two being designed to complete the top (or bottom) layer and the third to complete the middle layer. They differ in their methods of completing the remaining layer, which is by far the most difficult. Nourse's approach seems to involve the fewest moves. Bossert--a remarkable 13-year-old--uses a different overall strategy which includes rotating the middle layer. This seems a bit more difficult to do mechanically, and increases the number of different movements one has to remember.

Bossert has much the clearest way of depicting individual moves, but he does not develop terminology that can help one remember a sequence of moves. The other three books use letter symbols for each move, which is fine for remembering simple sequences (such as R-B- Rp), but mind-boggling for the more complex ones, such as LD (U-1RUR-1)(UF-1U-1F)(U-1RUR-1)(UF-1U- 1F) D-1L-1).

As for graphics, the Kosniowski book is the most lavish, showing in color at the top of each page a picture of the result being sought at that stage and giving for each sequence before-and-after views of the cube from two different angles. Its disadvantages are (1) cubes of different manufacture differ in the color combinations they use, thus requiring you to translate the colors shown in the book to the colors on your cube, and (2) the two rather ugly reddish colors used in the illustations are close enough in hue to require some effort to distinguish between them.

The next most fully illustrated is the Bossert book, whose pictures, though not in color, are particularly helpful. The other two books, also in black-and-white, have fewer but, generally adequate illustrations (though a few of those in the Nourse book take some effort to understand).

None of the books claims that its solution is necessarily the fastest way to complete the cube. Experts have shortcuts and alternatives that give them a competitive advantage in speed tests. But these are complex and should be left until after you have mastered the basic solution, which is difficult enough. Nourse describes some of these shortcuts and alternatives, and challenges you to work out others. Taylor lists 15 sequences that can be used to improve your speed, but leaves you to discover how to apply them. Bossert and Kosniowski confine their attention to the basic solution.

Each of the manuals offers, as a fringe benefit, materials in addition to guidance on how to complete the cube. Taylor uses simple games and pattern-making to familiarize the reader with the cube before he tries to solve the puzzle. The others offer these extras at the end, as other uses that can be made of the cube. Kosniowski shows how to work with variants of the cube (such as cubes with pictures on their faces or in different shapes: octagonal, prisms, truncated cubes, diamond-shaped and spherical versions, and cuboctahedrons). He also explains how to make a number of patterns. Bossert and Nourse likewise have sections on pattern-making, and the latter challenges you to construct all the letters of the alphabet. Bossert has a few pages on cube maintenance.

But the pons asinorum remains memorization of the sequences of moves necessary to complete the cube. It is possible to break down these sequences into about 10 groups of three or four moves each, and to limit memorization to some 16 combinations of these groups. But my best advice to you remains: Don't get sucked in.