I'm almost inclined to say: "Read this book but don't take it to the hospital."

It tells you much you well might want to know about hospitals. It unfortunately does so in the contentious, antimedical way typical of its parent, the "People's Medical Society" of Emmaus, Pa., itself an offspring of the Rodale publishing organization.

Charles Inlander has been the society's executive director since it was started in 1983 by Robert Rodale with what are now some $500,000 in loans (according to Inlander). Inlander is a former leader of advocacy groups for the retarded and handicapped. He was previously in charge of the reform of Forest Haven, the District's home for the mentally retarded.

Rodale's leading health publication, Prevention magazine, prints some sound articles. But it mixes the believable with the unproven and has anointed too many vitamins, minerals and natural foods as virtual cure-alls.

In a similar one-sided vein, this book gives the impression that hospitals are sinkholes, medicine does little right, most doctors are mendacious villains. I exaggerate, I admit, but so does this book. Anyone who swallows it whole may go to the hospital with such a big chip on the shoulder that the entire experience may be adversarial and self-defeating from the start.

Any sane observer of American medicine knows it is an imperfect system, but one that does far more good than harm. What we patients really need to know is: How can we get the system to work for us? This mainly requires a cooperative rather than an adversarial approach.

There are many good things in this book: facts on the misdiagnoses, misguided treatments and unnecessary infections in hospitals; good advice on when not to go to a hospital emergency room (go only in true emergencies); and the idea that you must take responsibility for your own health care.

There are also misguided things. For example, this bald statement: "A hospital is no place for a sick person." This advice could be fatal.

There is a statement at the very outset that "hospital patients don't find much hospitality nowadays. Tolerance is more like it. And confusion. And neglect." These exist. But how is it that I also hear from many discerning persons who are happy and grateful for the care they received?

The People's Medical Society already has 70,000 members, who for $15 a year get its newsletter and some other publications. The membership renewal rate, Inlander says, is 55 to 60 percent. He and Rodale deserve credit for taking some steps toward a good cause: enlightening and empowering the public to demand better care. Would that they did it less vituperously and more usefully.