"Abreakthrough approach to knowledge: Timeless works brought to life in sound!" Yes, that's what the mail broughtip,2

last week. The good old mail, the same mail that brings solicitations for obscene videotapes and catalogues promoting electronic playthings and offerings from avaricious financial institutions -- the very same mail that soon will raise first-class postage to extortionist's rates delivered to me, out of the goodness of its heart, "the wisdom of the past."

Naturally I was grateful, and naturally you are curious about the precise nature of this fantastic excursion into "the greatest ideas of all time: clear, understandable and relevant." Well, it is "an entirely new concept in acquiring knowledge -- easily, rapidly, enjoyably." It is -- are you ready for this? -- "Audio Classics," a collection of 23 tape-recorded "dramatized condensations of the original books" by a dozen and a half heavy-hitters in the ideas game: Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, Henry Thoreau, Adam Smith -- you name it, The Audio Classics Listening Program has it, for a mere $14.95 per tape plus $2 shipping charge, and what's more, you get the first one ("The Declaration of Independence" and "Common Sense") on a "15-day approval basis."

It's a yuppie's dream: "If you spend 30 minutes a day in your car, you can acquire an education in the classics. Or you can audit {sic} the tapes while exercising, walking, on a plane, while doing household chores" -- though this last is an odd recommendation, since yuppies and housework are mutually exclusive. But whatever the conditions in which you "audit" these tapes, the benefits are breathtaking, just as the prose in which they are described is breathless:

"Snap an Audio Classics tape into your player and sit back. As one fascinating, intellectually challenging idea after another unfolds, you'll almost feel as though the author is there in the room with you!

"Here is a tool to expand your horizons and broaden your perspectives. To benefit you both personally and professionally.

"Today the pressures of time don't always permit us the opportunity to enlarge our scope of knowledge.

"That's why we decided to put these great works on tape. It's an easy, convenient, time-efficient way to learn ... even while you're engaged in other activities. Spare minutes can be turned to productive use."

It's learning of the kind that Americans adore: instant knowledge, painlessly acquired, boiled down to the nittiest of the gritty. Marx in 30 minutes, with Engels on the side! "The Wealth of Nations" in an hour's drive! "Democracy in America" while you walk the dog! Hamilton, Madison and Jay to accompany the exercycle! And when it's all done, what? "The result? You'll be more knowledgeable. More confident. More articulate. More interesting. You'll be able to 'hold your own' in any discussion. You'll better understand yourself, others, the world."

Who could ask for anything more? It's the upwardly mobile striver's wish book fulfilled: a chatting acquaintance with erudition, acquired without a scintilla of effort. Just lean back in your Benz and let the wisdom of the past wash over you; in no time you'll have the intellectual equipment of a "Jeopardy!" $100,000 grand prize winner. You'll be able to hold your own in a gabfest with William Simon and Milton Friedman, both of whom provide generous testimony to the benefits to be reaped from enrolling (tuition: $389.85) in the University of Audio Classics.

If that seems a bit much to spend on a bluffer's guide to refinement, fret not. There are other alternatives, both of them quite newly minted and therefore entirely up to date. For a mere $24.95 you can obtain "An Incomplete Education," by Judy Jones and William Wilson, a book that offers you bite-size bits of everything from Socrates to Shakespeare. And if you're especially hard up -- those Benz payments can leave a guy, or a gal, really hurting at the end of the month -- for a mere $7.95 you can fasten onto "Cvltvre Made Stvpid" (yes, that's how he spells it), by Tom Weller, about which Publishers Weekly reports: "According to the publisher, in just minutes, this single volume can provide the cultural background equal to that of many graduates of prestigious universities."

Though this claim is rather less than the publisher imagines it to be -- the "cultural background" acquired these days at "prestigious universities" is approximately kindergarten level -- there can be no question that either of these books will put you right on the road to high culture. Once you've made it to the top -- leveraged a few buy-outs, cornered a few markets, conflicted a few interests -- you'll be able to chat up the rich and famous on their very own terms. Talk a little Schopenhauer with Donald Trump, a little Boccherini with Gayfred Steinberg, a little Mandelstam with Tama Janowitz. Keep it up long and loud enough and you'll be invited to buy yourself a chaired professorship at Harvard.

The trouble with these two books, though, is that they are, well, books, and you have to read them, and reading is work. That's what's so great about Audio Classics: You don't have to do any work at all! It's just like watching television, except you don't have to look at a picture, which can be hard on the eyeballs. You just lean back, close the old eyes -- maybe catch a quick 40 when Machiavelli hits the heavy stuff -- and take in the highlights of "The Prince." Where you're going, you'll need them.

And the wonderful thing about it is that it's so solidly, patriotically American. Mom, baseball and apple pie may be written on the national birth certificate, but so too are the quick fix, the shortcut and the easy glide. Americans like the idea of education a lot more than the actual effort involved in acquiring it, so from our earliest days -- remember Benny Franklin? -- we've sought to distill "the wisdom of the past" into the tiniest and most palatable bites imaginable. The people who now bring us Audio Classics have merely taken the next logical step, and the name of the company that manufactures the "listening program" says it all: Knowledge Products. If that isn't true-blue American, then the phrase has no meaning.

A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but in these United States it's the ticket to a marble seraglio on the 20th floor of Trump Tower. What we fear isn't too little knowledge but too much, lest it trap a fellow in the thicket of ideas and thus render him unfit for the get-up-and-go world of competition and success: The world of Nietzsche, of those supermen -- Masters of the Universe! -- whose "will to power" elevates them above "the herd." And "Nietzsche," as Ogden Nash put it in his own neat pre'cis, "is pietzsche.