The battle of the books at Stanford University -- what or whom do you include in a required "Western civilization" reading list? -- reminds me of a letter.

It came, the other day, from an old friend who'd just heard a lecture about the human longing for narrative: a longing that Joseph Conrad once said is "greater than the longing for the loaves and fishes of this earth."

"What came to mind for me," she wrote, "were some experiences I had teaching children as a volunteer. I tutored a black child in reading and could not interest him in stories of ghetto kids talking in their own language. He disliked it intensely!

"One day, having come to my wit's end, I started reading him Oscar Wilde's 'The Happy Prince,' which I was discussing with an above-average group of students his age {9}. He couldn't get enough. . . . I read it over and over to him and then other fairy tales and folk tales, and his appetite for them was insatiable."

Who would have thought it possible in this age when the drawing of sharp ethnic and racial lines is a growth industry? A late-20th-century black child of the American South entranced by the tales of an epicene Irish dandy of the last century who happened to write like a magician?

Who would have thought it? The answer is anyone -- anyone, that is, with a bit of firsthand experience in the universal receptivity to a good story.

The problem, obviously, is that the furious warriors in the battle of the books are confusing settings and origins of books on the reading list (preponderantly Western, perhaps white and male as well) with subjects and themes which, in most cases, are universal. Which is why they're on the list, of course.

At Stanford, and wherever the battle of the books rages, the discredited red herrings of race, age, sex and ethnicity divide people on false lines and thus ensure a barren, if not ridiculous, outcome. It is a depressing example of cross-purposes.

My own credentials as a commentator on all this are slender and impressionistic, those of an amateur. But such as they are, they tally with the experience of my friend who discovered that the exquisite Oscar Wilde, rather than contrived jive-talk stories, was the answer to a child's boredom.

For some years I've been teaching, every spring, a sort of great-books course at Georgetown University, though goodness knows we don't and wouldn't call it that. It would scare people away.

My experience with students of all ages, conditions and colors confirms that at the feet of a good storyteller all imagined differences melt away, and we join the one great club: the club of mortals.

Yes, there is the usual unequal distribution of literacy, imagination and discrimination; and, yes, I find myself explaining terms that leak into the discussion ("Panglossian," "in medias res," "denouement," for instance) that I wish were better taught at an earlier stage. But these differences in cultural literacy, or acquaintance with the Western tradition, pale beside the stark fact that one never has to sell a good book, ancient or modern, fiction or nonfiction, Eastern or Western. They sell themselves. They are what a soft-drink ad of my boyhood used to call "best by taste test."

Even old Henry James (one of my own favorites) sells, even with those intricate sentences that his psychologist brother complained of: "wholly impalpable materials, air and the prismatic inferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space." Even James sells. Readers discover, to their surprise, that James (or Tolstoy or Gibbon or Rebecca West or the Book of Genesis) is writing about people like us.

In the last analysis, we dying animals (as Yeats called us) have very little time to read all that might be read; and certainly too little time to argue about the accidental aspects, such as what color, nationality or sex the writer was.

Make response the test, as my friend did, and you soon learn how little these artificialities matter. The gold is in the books. All the rest -- race and ethnicity, color and nationality, feminism and masculinism, nationalism and structuralism and every other sort of ism -- is dross.