For years I've been convinced that sleep is vastly underrated.

I don't mean the necessity of sleep. There are at least a dozen Ph.D.s ready to outline the 27 daily requirements of slumber. There are a dozen more who have studied the dire consequences of being without it. But those people are the nutritionists of the sleeping world, those who regard it as a matter of chemicals, whose very words sound as if they were culled from the list of ingredients on the side of the cereal box.

What I am talking about is the pleasure of sleep, the gourmet view of bedtime. How often do we ever hear of the sensuality of shut-eye? Who, pray, is the James Beard of the mattress?

I am afraid the majority of people in this land of the napless talk about sleep as either a Spartan affair - something to be kept down to a minimum - or as a secret sundae sort of vice indulged in by assorted worthless, willpowerless people "who will never go far in this world."

Virtually no one freely, un-selfconsciously describes his sleeptime as a seven-course delight. I have never hear a soul talk glowingly about the absolutely marvelous time he or she had the night before . . . sleeping.

No critic lists the three- and four-star slumber sports of the world. No epicure dissects in lip-smacking delight his all-time big dozes - from the jet-lag catch-up to the Russian sleeping cure.

Nor do any consumer reporters compare the pleasure of hours spent under an electric blanket or a down quilt. They don't even discuss the somnolent effect of the air-conditioner hum versus the energy-saving cricket.

In the entire triumvirate of human needs - sex, food and sleep - the last is given appalling short shrift.

I am, you might have guessed, one of the world's happy sleepers. I look forward to falling into that state with the sense of abandon that others reserve for a plunge into the communal baths of Plato's Retreat.

Moreover, I am a early-evening sleeper. Unlike late-morning sleepers - dissipated types who are usually "sleeping something off" - we are pleasure seekers of the purest sort. Still, I have found through sad experience that when I confess that I love to go to bed early, I am branded as a immature, vaguely tainted human being who will never be taken seriously.

Well, I suppose we are all trained early to be prejudiced against sleep. From infancy we learn to recognize bedtime as the enemy, to be staved off. Sleep is a defeat, a victory of matter over mind. We want to stay up late, "like the grown-ups."

Then, when we finally become grown-ups, we think of all enjoyment as something that we "do." Pleasure is an activity, like dancing. Sleeping is a passivity, like a coma. To sleep is not to enjoy. It is to "waste time."

I'm not sure why I escaped this bigotry against one of life's great pleasures (perhaps it was metabolism), but I know that there are more of us who lushly embrace slumber than are willing to admit it.

Sleeping in 1978 seems to be where sex was in 1878: Everyone is doing it and nobody admits they are liking it. Sleep is dealt with publicly as a dubious, but mechanically important, bodily function. Privately it is felt as a vaguely shameful, even kinky, desire.

What we pleasure-seeking sleepers need is a bit of liberation, "A Joy of Slumber," perhaps, with full-color pictures of the 66 all-time favorite positions, including The Sprawl, The Embryo, The Thrash and The Miscellaneous (in which the sleeper holds sheet wrinkles between his toes). The final chapters could even include all the options, 1) tucks, 2) pillows, 3) others.

We could then support a speak-out on sleep, followed by a collection of first-person accounts, called "Dozing," wherein people from all walks of life talk about the pleasures and pains of nodding off in public and private.

There is, truly, a great future on the horizon of this horizontal field. Since we've virtually mined out the market in food and sex, the only growth market left in the human-potential biz is to encourage personal fulfillment through shut-eye.

I am personally convinced - forgive me for saying so - that this national issue is a real sleeper.