Most people are aware to some degree of the poverty and hunger that stalk many nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But probably few realize that there is another kind of hunger in those nations - a hunger of the mind caused by a lack of books.

At a world conference of book publishers in London this past week, it was pointed out that the lack of books is reaching crisis proportions in some developing countries, particularly when it comes to school books.For example, a study done in 1980 in an unnamed small English-speaking African country found that the average availability of textbooks in primary schools was 11 books per 1,000 students. The situation has worsened since then. In some nations, there are no books available in the education system at all.

The tragedy of this is that book is vital to learning and training at every level. Without books, how can poor people in a poor country lift themselves out of their poverty? How can they even acquire the basic skill that unlocks other learning skills - namely, the simple ability to read?

The conference agreed there is a critical need for international and national publishers to get together and find ways to provide books to poor nations. But there are dangers that must be faced in providing such books. The Third World nations must not simply become dumping grounds for useless books or for the advanced nation's own histories.

What is needed most of all are simple texts dealing with math, science, and technology of all kinds. Perhaps instead of military aid, loans, and economic support, the Western nations might figure out ways to provide books. Feeding the mind is just as important as feeding the stomach - and in the long run, may pay even greater dividends.