THE BEST

By Peter Passell

Viking. 303 pp. $15.95

There's an amusing idea in here somewhere, but Peter Passell certainly hasn't made an amusing book out of it. A lot of fun could be had with an idiosyncratic, unpredictable compilation of those products and services judged to be "the best" by a writer of informed tastes and vigorous opinions -- a writer who presented those opinions with a refreshing brace of pugnacity and invited, indeed challenged, his readers to take issue with him. But on the evidence of "The Best," Peter Passell is not that writer.

Though Passell makes an occasional, unsuccessful effort at wit and flair, what he has written is a smug, self-satisfied and solemn guidebook for the nouveau riche. "The Best" is a laundry list for those who are at once affluent, upwardly mobile and insecure, people who have the money to live well but haven't a clue to what the good life really is. Passell gives them the equivalent of a whole-earth Horchow catalogue: a list of those products the possession of which is regarded in certain circles as proof of taste and exclusivity. By their brand names ye shall know them.

In no respect is the list interesting and in remarkably few is it even especially original. Though the selection of what is "best" is represented as Passell's own, in fact he seems to rely to a significant extent on the judgments of others. His choice of a bicycle helmet appears to have been made not from personal experience but from tests conducted by Bicycle Rider magazine; his selection of hospitals, from "The Best in Medicine," by Herbert Dietrich and Virginia Biddle; his preferred cars, from the various auto magazines. To be sure, he acknowledges his sources; but since he is merely rehashing others' material, his listings lack personal flair and eccentric charm.

Other choices seem to have been made with unacknowledged, perhaps unwitting, assistance. An article last year by Corby Kummer in The Atlantic chose Martelli as the best pasta; Passell makes the same choice. For years Consumer Reports, which Passell otherwise disparages, has chosen Jif as the best peanut butter; ditto Passell. Consumer Reports and Passell also chose the same Panasonic PV-1742 videocassette recorder; as it happens that specific model is no longer available, which in this instance rather reduces the usefulness of "The Best."

The point is not merely that Passell is plowing territory already tilled by others but that he is therefore predictable and unprovocative. Who cares that he chooses Pilsner-Urquell as the best beer? That choice has been made over and again. How much more interesting it would be had he chosen Samuel Adams, or Singha, or some other tasty brew less widely known than the classic from Czechoslovakia. But Pilsner-Urquell is a safe choice, one endorsed by Michael Jackson's pocket guide to beers, so Pilsner-Urquell is the choice Passell makes.

And what does Passell do when the choice is neither safe nor clear? He waffles. Rather than go out on a limb, he leaves the decision to the reader. After discoursing for three pages on dog foods, he lists no fewer than six from which the poor yuppies must choose -- and he doesn't even rank pooper-scoopers for them. Similarly, he can't make up his mind about kitchen knives -- the better to slice the kiwi with -- and winds up with four recommendations. His convictions are matched only by the courage with which he presents them.

Writing about bicycles, Passell says, "A new breed of mostly urban, mostly affluent amateurs say {sic} they {sic} want {sic} fancy bikes for the exercise and the pleasure of competition." At least he puts it, however ungrammatically, right out on the table: "The Best" is a book for those who are "mostly urban" and "mostly affluent." It offers them a guide -- not an especially well-informed one, but a guide all the same -- to the apparatus of contemporary urban self-indulgence: bottled water, CD players, chocolate-chip cookies, walking shoes, investment advisers, mutual funds, balsamic vinegars. Somehow it overlooks sushi bars, but that can be taken care of in later editions.

On its cover, "The Best" is promoted as "a discerning selection for the quality-obsessed." But quality really has little to do with it. Status is what the yuppies want, and status is what "The Best" purports to offer them. That is but one of several reasons why "The Best" is the worst.