THE CHARITY ball ranks second only to the cocktail party as an event that people who attend regularly profess to dislike. And yet there are those who believe that the rich know nothing of the rigors of self-sacrifice!

Miss Manners does not indulge in the popular vulgarity of comparing the menus, clothes and social practices present at charity balls with those customarily enjoyed by the objects of the charity.A good benefit is beneficial both to the benefactor and the beneficiary.

It not only raises money for the unfortunate but, by roping off the bountiful in their ballrooms, protects the poor from the misfortune of being visited by them, as was once the custom, and getting money diluted by advice.

Ballgoers are enriched, not only with the statisfaction of having done a good deed with photographers present, but by being allowed to participate in an obsolescent ritual.

The private ball, in its day, was a fine work of anthropology. Miss Manners cannot understand why it is that so few people these days choose to maintain private ballrooms in their homes, which they can open to their 400 closest friends once a year.

A warm heart, two orchestras, enough food, champagne and footmen to keep continuous service open until 3 in the morning, and an awning and carpet for the street, are really all that is needed to give people several hours of pleasure and the opportunity to end and begin romances and other special alliances with their entire social circle for an audience.

The public ball is just not the same thing, no matter how hard well-meaning committee members try to reproduce the spirit of the grand hostesses of yesteryear by saying, "Let's make sure those dreadful Piffles don't get an invitation."

Nevertheless, it is the only opportunity the average person with the above-average income will have to wear full evening regalia, including whatever grand jewels remain after those whom they encounter on the sidewalk going in to the ball have had their pick.

It is therefore incumbent on ball organizers, Miss Manners believes, to simulate a pleasant social event for the benefit of the ticket buyers. Instead, she has found, most public balls combine the crushing, noise and surly service of a discotheque with the self-congratulations, entertainment level and commercial breaks of a televised awards show.

Instead of requiring the quests to listen and even applaud while the committee members thank one another for having worked so hard, they might spend the time doing the duty of hosts -- greeting those whom they know at the door, introducing people, rescuing those who get stranded, and so on.

They might see to it that there is room to dance, a place to take a flirtatious walk or to make good an escape from an unwanted partner, music that everyone can dance to, and which even allows the human voice to be heard by a nearby human ear. (You don't want it to be possible for the human voice to carry to a third person; no sensible person tries to have a sensible conversation at a ball.)

They might refrain from bragging about getting favors, prizes, decorations or whatever, free. The rule ought to be that if the donor requires oral acknowledgment, not just a discreet program note, his donation is neither free, nor worth accepting.

In fact, all the time should be devoted to amusing the guests -- which can be done by allowing them to dance, mix, chat, sit down, walk around and even eat (Miss Manners prefers buffet suppers at dances, rather than plates of congealed food dealt out by bossy waiters).

Actually giving a good time to people who pay dearly to attend when they wish, now that would, indeed, be an act of charity. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS

Q. I am, if I may say so, a superb cook and an even more advanced eater. So are many of my friends. I would like to give an old-fashioned dinner party with lots and lots of food. I know that eight or 10-course meals used to be served at formal parties, but I don't know what all the courses were. If you will list them for me in order, I will promise to prepare, serve and eat them all, correctly.

A. Miss Manners is taking you at your word. There were 14 courses.

1. Oysters or clams on the half-shell. Fruit or caviar may be served instead.

2. Soup, giving each guest a choice of clear or thick.

3. Radishes, celery, olives and salted almonds.

4. Fish, served with fancifully shaped potatoes and cucumbers with oil and vinegar.

5. Sweetbreads or mushrooms.

6. Artichokes, asparagus or spinach in pastry.

7. A roast or joint, as we say, with a green vegetable.

8. Frozen Roman punch, to clear the palate and stimulate you to go on.

9. Game, such as wild duck or little birdies, served with salad.

10. Heavy pudding or another creamed sweet.

11. A frozen sweet. It is a nice touch to have tiny crisp cakes with this.

12. Cheeses, with biscuits and butter. Or you may serve a hot savory of cheese, which is more filling.

13. Fresh, crystallized and stuffed dried fruits, served with bonbons.

14. Coffee, liqueurs and sparkling waters.

Miss Manners offers this only as a basic list; you needn't consider yourself limited to it.

Q. Would you please comment on the proper etiquette for reading at the dinner table? In particular is it considered proper to prop a letter against the salt shaker or to lean the newspaper against a carton of cottage cheese, in order to free the hands for eating?

A. Miss Manners was about to duck this question, on the ground that it is never proper to read at the dinner table if anyone else is present, and that what you do when you eat alone is between you and your God, and not a matter of etiquette. Then she came to the cottage cheese container. No decent person would put a food package -- including ketchup bottles, milk cartons or cereal boxes -- on the table, even at home alone with the shades drawn.