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.

“There was a kind of pre-millennium frenzy with a sort of frothy spirituality that offered quick answers and quick fixes,” says Eric Major, vice president of religious publishing for Doubleday. “But I think a huge need has grown in a time of consumerism for people to seek more from life and to bring balance to their lives. People are reading books to discover how they can maintain a spiritual life while still being a lawyer, a bus driver, a teacher, etc.”

This fall’s lineup of religious books from Doubleday, Harper Collins and Putnam Penguin and most other mainstream publishers offers more substance than last year’s offerings, he said.

Popular right now, says Major, are books by Catholic theologians such as Thomas Merton, Scott Hahn, Ronald Rolheiser, books on the monastic life and on how to live a more spiritual life through traditions of faith such as Christian fixed-hour prayer.

“There is also a drive toward authenticity,” says Ellen Frankel, chief executive officer and editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society. “People want texts close to the original versions, they seem to want to know more about where traditions have come from … and of course people are very interested in mysticism at the moment. Right now books on Jewish mysticism are some of our best sellers.”

Martin Marty, professor emeritus of religion at the University of Chicago and the author of more than 60 books on American religion, says the first wave of religious titles just made people thirsty for more.

“All those cafeteria-style books like the Chicken Soup books did draw people in. Many of the books you’re seeing now take you to the next level,” he says.

High Religiosity

The drive toward religious books may be due, in part, to the depth of religious sentiment in America.

The latest figures show about 35 percent of Americans say they attend a religious service at least once a week — the highest percentage of any developed country. In comparison, only about 5 to 6 percent of Western Europeans say the same, and the religious book-buying trend has not caught on there either, says Ronald Inglehart, program director of the World Values Service at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

“The United States has this unique history of fleeing religious persecution and each successive wave of immigrants increases religious attendance,” he says. “The U.S. is also rare in that religion is an entirely voluntary thing. In a lot of European countries that wasn’t always the case.”

The Individual’s Path

Even today, 380 years after the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, Americans are searching for religious and personal truths, but in a much more individual way, says Marty.

Baby boomers, he said, have led the search for spirituality. Although no one has officially drawn a direct link between the two trends, the rise in religious book sales has paralleled baby boomers’ slide into middle age and beyond. Boomers, Marty says, are trying to resolve the larger issues of life and death as they age.

“Many baby boomers and now their children have returned to the family faith but bring with them the things they learned studying Hinduism and other religions in college, for example, or studying transcendental meditation.”

But even for people who attend religious services regularly, it seems they aren’t finding all the answers from their priest, rabbi or imam.

“Churchgoers don’t accept having their beliefs spoon-fed to them anymore,” says Marty.

Instead, they hear something in church and want to read more about it on their own time.

“Something is going on that that is leading upper middle-brow culture to venture where they haven’t for some time,” Marty says. “It used to be that people simply did not openly ask these questions. It was not a subject for general discussion as it often is today. There were a handful of religious books in mainstream stores. Today you have astrology, Western religion, Eastern religion, mysticism, religious fiction, self-improvement, inspiration — you name it.”