I visit bookstores a lot. In other decades, I spent much more time in public libraries, especially at the shelves displaying the newest titles.
The “hot books,” the most-talked-about new books, aren’t usually there these days. If they are put out to patrons, they’re instantly gone. Sometimes, the libraries buy them en masse for rent.
We may lack the patience to be on waiting lists. After all, our book club meets in two weeks, and we need that book now to be prepared for the heady discussion. We can’t wait for whoever borrowed it from the library.
Probably no book, in recent years, caught the faith community’s fascination like Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life.” More than 30 million copies have been sold worldwide since 2003. In some churches, massive reading groups were formed and cases of free copies were given out for a reading and discussion series to reinvigorate a church family.
The religious publishing world is earnestly waiting for another blockbuster like that to come along.
We’re being assaulted by an ever-increasing barrage of compelling, must-read books from publishers. Part of it is the sheer urgency of these times. The talk shows and book reviews reveal intriguing revelations from the latest cutting-edge books, and we need to know more. We are torn over what to read next. What screams for instant reading? There’s the book on the things President Gerald Ford wanted told only after his death. (“Write It When I’m Gone” by Thomas DeFrank). Or Jeremy Scahill’s “Blackwater: The Rise of America’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” So many books, so little time.
I grieve looking at the books waiting for me on our bedside stand and bookshelves across the house. Alas, the demands of job and community mean so much will never get read, so much important information never to be grasped and digested.
The robust religious book industry takes no back seat to other segments of publishing. Religious bookstores are generally thriving. The Association for Christian Retail, representing 2,055 Christian stores and about 52 percent of the religious sales market, reported $4.63 billion in sales in 2006. And the Book Industry Study Group reported a 5.6 percent increase in religious book sales. One in eight Americans spends more than $50 a month on religious products.
“Consumers of Christian books read more, spend more on books, shop at bookstores more and visit the library more often than the general population,” reported the Ipsos BookTrends research group. It also found that Christian book-buyers read more than the overall population. Thirty-two percent of regular Christian book-buyers read more than three titles a month (compared to 29 percent of the population). The study, done in 2005, found Christian retail consumers average nine visits a year to all bookstores, which is 40 percent higher than the general population. Regular Christian-market shoppers spend, on average, $300 a year on books, compared to about $200 by the general public. The study found Christians are 4 percent more likely to give books as gifts, 3 percent more likely to borrow books from libraries and 4 percent more likely to loan their books to friends.
Major book chain stores have assigned significant space to showcase what’s offered. In addition, the Valley’s bookstores are veritable classrooms with the stream of authors coming through to discuss their books, take questions and hold signings.
Book publicists daily send me e-mails on religious books now on the market, with pitches for interviews, often related to book tours to the area. One example this week was the book “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.” Writer David Gelernter suggests that Americans speak of the U.S. as a country “having a purpose that is higher than those of other nations.” He asserts that this “religion” emanates from “our biblical, Judeo-Christian heritage and our unique national experience.” Start with scripture and tell the American story, the impact of the Puritans, the founding fathers, 19th century Great Enlightenment and giant figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., and you have a distinct, powerful “religion” that has had “transformative power at home and worldwide.”
On the same day came a promotion for “Hope Matters: The Untold Story of How Faith Works in America” by John A. Calhoun, who spent two years crossing the country talking to some of the hardest-working public servants. They included an Arizonan, the director of Horse Camp at Sells. Calhoun, founder and president for 20 years of the National Crime Prevention Council, says there is a lesson in the 24 stories that he tells and how those people “overcame doubt, fear and burnout.”
People of faith need only look at their bookshelves and see how much of their collection is probably religious. Much of it can go back decades. Starting with an assortment of Bibles, including the more unconventional ones like “The Message” or the Good News Bible, there may well be the panoply of books that caused a buzz in their time: Catherine Marshall’s “Christy,” M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled”; Marjorie Holmes’ “Two From Galilee”; Hal Lindsay, “The Late Great Planet Earth”; Corrie ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place”; David Wilkerson’s “The Cross and the Switchblade,” Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s “Life of Christ.” And then there are the prolific titles of C.S. Lewis, such as “The Screwtape Letters.”
One often sees those books, yellowed and tattered, in the boxes at rummage and estate sales.
Of course, the vibrancy of Christian publishing can be found in works of more recent times: the “Left Behind” series, Bruce Wilkinson’s “The Prayer of Jabez,” Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” (and scads of “Case For … ” books) or Joel Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now.”
It’s cliche, but the most memorable episode in Rod Serling’s epic “Twilight Zone” TV series was the 1959 story, “Time Enough at Last,” in which a hen-pecked man (played by Burgess Meredith), denied time to read his favorite books a home, would take his lunch breaks and slip into the vault of the bank where he worked and joyously read. The atomic bomb dropped, and he emerged safe from the vault to find the world destroyed. The public library’s books are spilled on the ground — all his favorites. He’d have the rest of his life, free from restrictions, to read. But when he reached down to gather up a book, his thick glasses fell from his face and shattered on a rock, leaving him hopelessly lost in a blur.
How many more books will we fit into the rest of our lifetime?