What Religious Books Say About Us

In one of the most religious countries in the world, more and more people are seeking spiritual enlightenment in the same manner monks, rabbis and priests have done for centuries: by reading.

Attendance at religious services in the United States has remained the highest of any developed country, according to the Gallup Organization and other surveyors of popular opinion and habits. And the personal-quest side of that religiosity has pushed a once-niche book category into best-seller status, boosting the sales of religious books to all-time highs.

The decade-long trend toward spiritual fulfillment through books has offered more than just a boon to publishers. It has also become a kind of primitive barometer of American spirituality, offering a rare glimpse into the nation’s ongoing quest for inner peace.

The books we read often reflect our spiritual yearnings, or at least provide a piece of the puzzle, says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly. Garrett says she receives calls almost every week from journalists interested in the latest sales figures and what the new season’s line up of religious books tells us about ourselves.

“In the late ’80s religion started coming on strong. It looked as though it would become one of the fastest and dynamic categories and it has been. So far it doesn’t seem to be losing any of its momentum,” says Garrett.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Just 50 years ago, when the country was supposed to be in a state of religious rejuvenation following World War II, the religious section of a bookstore typically had one Episcopal book, one Catholic book, one Jewish book and two or three titles that today would probably be classified as self-help or inspirational, Garrett says.

Today, religious book sections in mainstream bookstores have ballooned to encompass entire floors, or at least a few hundred feet of shelf space, and are divided into several subcategories.

Last year, religious book sales hit an all-time high of $2.15 billion, making religious books (including religious fiction) the second biggest category after general fiction and accounting for 16 percent of all books sold. According to the Book Industry Study Group, a nonprofit organization that tracks book publishing trends for the industry, sales are likely to climb to $2.74 billion by 2004.

Just last week, The New York Times best-seller list included such titles as Life on the Other Side, a psychic’s guide to the afterlife; The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and psychologist Howard C. Cutler; Oprah Winfrey Show spirituality expert Gary Zukov’s The Seat of the Soul; and the seventh installment of the popular apocalyptic fiction Left Behind series, The Indwelling.

Spirituality Lite

For almost two decades, “spirituality lite” dominated Publisher’s Weekly’s religious book best-sellers list and held some of the top spots on The New York Times list. The prolific Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which now has more than 30 titles, epitomized the feel-better-fast inspirational book.

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