THE HABIT of listening to books read aloud, an activity replaced a long time ago by the habit of watching television, appears to be making a comeback. Not, mind you, in the old-fashioned way--whole families gathered round the fireside listening to Father read Dickens--but in a newfangled way made possible by the development and proliferation of the cassette tape player. The notion of recorded books, which the blind have been enjoying, compliments of the Library of Congress, for a half- century, is becoming more popular among other members of the population, who can rent or buy tapes from several companies around the country.

The impetus for all this enthusiasm is probably the desperation of the commuter, and the advent of the ubiquitous Walkman tape player: Americans, never content to do only one thing at a time, have discovered that it's possible to read--i.e., listen to--War and Peace while negotiating rush-hour traffic, or to plow through The Art of Japanese Management while weeding the petunias.

Most of the customers for cassette books, according to Duvall Hecht, president of Books on Tape in Newport Beach, California, are "goal-oriented, really active people, energetic. They're cramming as much into life as they can."

"It's very much a part of today's life style," said Ann Somerset, president of Tape-Worm, a recorded books rental firm in Rockville. "It's like hanging your own wall-paper--having what you want when you want it." In addition, says Somerset, "It's giving people back something that has been pushed out."

It's a service that does not come cheaply. The trade is primarily a rental business, although some companies offer tapes for sale. Rental fees vary from supplier to supplier, but generally customers may pay from $4.50 for a novella to $27 for a large tome like Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich.

Somerset and Hecht both got the idea of renting taped books as a result of commuting. Faced with wasted time on the road, Somerset says she remembered the recorded books her blind father used to get from the library and decided to make something similar available to sighted people.

Ten years ago when Duvall Hecht moved West and encountered the California phenomenon of driving 100 miles a day between home and work (at Prudential- Bache Securities Inc. in Los Angeles where he's now vice president), he turned in desperation to his radio.

"But the radio offerings were impossible," he said. He then began looking for taped books, which he found to be expensive and limited in variety. "Obviously, the way to do it was to rent or loan recorded cassettes."

In 1975 Hecht founded Books on Tape and rented a booth at the American Booksellers Association convention to flack his first four titles: Happy Days, by H.L. Mencken, Oil and Water, by Edward Cowan, The Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, and Zelda, by Nancy Milford. Hardly anyone noticed. "We wondered why it didn't just take off," said Hecht. In fact, Books on Tape was ahead of its time. Most of the company's growth has occurred over the past three years. With a $100,000 advertising budget spread among such national publications as Vogue, Glamour, and The Wall Street Journal, Hecht's company is now increasing its customer base at the rate of about 12,000 a year for its 600 titles. He claims about 40,000 customers now, each of whom gets a monthly list of books.

Books on Tape, Tape-Worm and Recorded Books all depend primarily on the U.S. Postal Service for distribution. Customers order titles from a catalogue, are sent their selections in a box which, underneath the wrapping, is stamped and addressed back to the company. When they've finished with the book, they simply tape the box closed and stick it in the nearest mailbox.

But Tape-Worm and Recorded Books are both looking to other outlets. So far, neither has made much headway in bookstores, whose owners balk at the idea of the rental and return system. Tape-Worm has come up with the idea of making its tapes available at a Rockville sports equipment store, the theory being that runners are often Walkman users, and likely taped book customers.

"Some libraries seem interested in carrying our books," said Sandy Spencer, product manager of Recorded Books. "We're also looking into having them in video rental stores. The rental business in audio cassettes is very much the same as in video cassettes."

The response from customers is extremely positive. "Sometimes if I get home and I'm really caught up in the story, I'll sit in the car and finish the episode," said Michael Phillips, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Georgetown University, who's been a Recorded Books customer for about four months. He's spent his hour-a-day commuting time with Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Wind in the Willows, among other titles.

Most of the attention, time and money of the trade is devoted to acquiring and recording the books themselves. Hecht estimates the cost of production between $2,000 and $7,000. Anything published after 1911, and therefore not in the public domain, requires a rights agreement with the publisher and is therefore more expensive to record, although Hecht and other recorded book businessmen will not divulge even the approximate amounts they pay for rights. After titles are chosen, readers must be engaged and cast properly--English accents for 19th-century British novels, older readers for history. "You just can't have a person 25 read a history of World War II," said Hecht.

Most readers are actors. Tape-Worm, which is trying to maintain a competitive pricing edge, mostly uses local actors. And Recorded Books uses more and more readers from New York. One recent reader, actor Alfred Gingold, who taped Hucklebery Finn for Recorded Books, is a successful author himself. His Items From Our Catalogue has been on the best-seller list since before Christmas.

Those who use taped books regularly say there is a great deal of variation in quality. "You get very critical," said Phillips, who has favorite readers among those he listens to. Most of the readers, however, do a creditable job--even though actors' voices seldom have very distinguishing qualities, no particular accents other than American or British, or timbres to interfere with the spoken word. The result can be somewhat flat.

Occasionally, an author will record his own book, as George Will, himself an avid cassette user, has recently done for Recorded Books. "And it was very hard to do, too," said Will of his recording sessions for The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts. Will explained that he suddenly had to be aware of the expression in his voice. Recorded Books is making much of their Will recording. In fact the promotion of unusual or especially popular books unavailable from other outlets seems to be the main area of competition. Tape-Worm is clearly hoping to capitalize on its up-coming recording of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, while Books on Tape touts its complete Winston Churchill history of World War II. Read by British actor Richard Green, it represents 140 hours of recording and took one year to produce. Both Tape-Worm and Books on Tape also boast of a roster of titles from something called the Success Motivation Institute in Waco, Texas. SMI produces abridgements of such self-improvement books as Passages, I'm Okay, You're Okay, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which it distributes through cassette book companies.

As the market for recorded material expands, recording companies are finding other ways to exploit the taped book idea. The Mind's Eye in San Francisco abridges and dramatizes books, complete with music, and sound effects (awful grunts and ughs can be heard on Treasure Island as the pirates are repulsed from the stockade), in the tradition of the old radio plays. Audio Books, in Katonah, New York, is just getting started in a similar venture, which will concentrate almost exclusively in horror, mystery and the supernatural. A catalogue of their dramatized books will be available in about two months, said president Ed Shanaphy. Other companies simply tape abridged books and distribute them in book stores. As for the future--writers may eventually find themselves producing novels and stories first in tape form, as Cynthia F. Carrington has in her Astrology Rising, written for Recorded Books. Audio Books is also soliciting original manuscripts of mysteries, just long enough to fit a cassette. Eventually, it appears, books may be measured in minutes, not just in pages.y

DDD The following companies rent or sell books, abridged books, or dramatized works on cassette tapes:

Books on Tape, P.O. Box 7900, Newport Beach, Calif. 92660. 800-854-6758. Rents tapes of complete books.

Tape-Worm Inc., P.O. Box 5524, Rockville, Md. 20855. 301-258-7618. Rents tapes of complete books.

Recorded Books, 6306 Aaron Ln., Clinton, Md. 20735. 800-638-1304. Rents tapes of complete books.

The Mind's Eye, P.O. Box 6726, San Francisco, Calif. 94101. 800-227-2020. Dramatizations of books for sale.

Listen for Pleasure Ltd., 417 Center St., Lewiston, N.Y. 14092. Abridged books for sale through some book stores.

Audio Books, 223 Katonah Ave. Katonah, N.Y. 10536. 914-232-3814. Catalogue under preparation. Will specialize in mysteries and horror fiction.