WHATEVER ELSE may be said of the immigrants who settled in New England in the 17th century, it is a paramount fact that they were dedicated and skillful readers. Although colonial literacy rates are difficult to assess, there is sufficient evidence that between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 and 95 percent. They represented, quite probably, the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time. (The literacy rate for women in these colonies is estimated to have run as high as 62 percent.)

It is to be understood that the Bible was the central reading matter in all households, for these people were Protestants who shared Luther's belief that printing was "God's highest and extremest act of Grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward." But reading for God's sake was not their sole motivation in bringing books into their homes. For example, between 1682 and 1685, Boston's leading bookseller imported 3,421 books from one English dealer, most of these non-religious books. The meaning of this fact may be fully appreciated when one considers that these books were intended for consumption by approximately 75,000 people then living in the northern colonies. In the year 1772, Jacob Duche wrote: "The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman scholar. . . . Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, that almost every man is a reader." Four years later, Thomas Paine's Common Sense was published, and within a year almost 500,000 copies were in print. In 1985, a book would have to sell 24 million copies to match the proportion of the population Paine's book attracted. America's founders, in other words, were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who have ever lived.

Our situation today is somewhat different. According to Jonathan Kozol, one out of every three Americans is incapable of reading his book, Illiterate America. In Boston, 40 percent of the adult population is illiterate. In San Antonio, 152,000 adults have been documented as illiterate; there are probably many more. One million teenagers between 12 and 17 cannot read above the third grade level. The United States ranks 49th among 158 member nations of the U.N. in its literacy levels.

WHAT HAPPENED? Well, for one thing, the electric plug. But Kozol does not dwell upon this. Neither does he explore very deeply some of the obvious other reasons why the leading nation of the "free world" should presently be crippled by 60 million illiterates. He is rather concerned about the fact of widespread illiteracy, its human and social costs, and what can be done about it. And, I dare say, anyone reading his book will, at the end, be persuaded that illiterate America poses a more immediate and dangerous threat to our social and political lives than the Sandinistas, Russian subs or, possibly, acid rain. For Kozol has written his best book since Death at an Early Age. Whereas his more recent work has been burdened by an excess of moral indignation, here Kozol allows the outrages of illiteracy to speak for themselves. He guides us through the "hard facts" of the problem with the discipline and sureness of one who has spent seven years studying the figures. But his strongest point -- indeed, his most worthy gift -- is his capacity to reconstruct in poignant narratives the pain and humiliation of those who are illiterate: people who cannot read the instructions on a bottle of prescription medicine, cannot read the letters that their children bring home from their teachers, cannot read the waivers they sign preceding surgery.

Having stated the problem, Kozol proceeds to offer a series of solutions, which, taken together, amount to a massive community and government effort to rid our schools, voting booths and work places of illiteracy. And he takes the time not only to give the details of how this can be done but also to describe cases where, in miniature scale, it is being done.

It is good to have Jonathan Kozol back again with a book that must be read. For Kozol is what we Americans mean when we talk of our "best and brightest." His voice is inspired by commitment. He knows humbug when he hears it, which is to say, he knows the difference between a fact and an ideological clich,e. And he devoutly believes that America can make itself better -- not through the semantic charade of a slicked-up Social Darwinism but through a compassionate pragmatism that once made us the envy of the Old World.