August 5, 1999
Books: Private Religion Is Big--and an Important Public Fact
-- Martin E. Marty
Sighting "religion" and "spirituality" in American bookstores will beeasier than ever this fall. In PUBLISHERS WEEKLY'S semiannual preview (July 12), Lynn Garrett summarizes: "The sleeping giant of religion/spirituality book sales began to stir more than ten years ago," and the publishers' lists are "still lush with choices."
Garrett knows that publishers know their market, and that market is dominated by "books on spirituality and prayer" and "inspirational and devotional titles." Catholics are joining Protestants in preparing books on "Christian living." In these years of concern over school violence, "books on parenting may reflect heightened concern about social and cultural influences on children."
Other trends? "There are far fewer on millennialism and end-times prophecy." Remember, these are books for "Fall and Winter," and ten days into winter, January 1, the millennial topic will be irrelevant, and books on that old-hat subject "remaindered." Garrett on such books: "Publishers seem to be holding their breath, wondering how well the flood of spring books [of 1999] will do in the short time they have to pay back their investment."
Garrett, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, and the publishers know how fickle and trendy the religion market can be. Ten and five years ago there would have been scores of titles on the theme of "angels." My scan of some 400 titles culled and highlighted by Bob Dahlin did not find a single book on them. Angels are as "dead" as "millennium" soon will be.
In Garrett's review, several titles stand out. We join her in expectingmuch of George Weigel's biography of Pope John Paul II, WITNESS TO HOPE (Harper Collins). She and we look forward to Wade Clark Roof's SPIRITUAL MARKETPLACE: BABY BOOMERS AND THE REMAKING OF AMERICAN RELIGION (Princeton) and Roger Housden's SACRED AMERICA: THE EMERGING SPIRIT OF THE PEOPLE (Simon & Schuster).
The vast majority of books listed deal with intimate, inspirational, personal, private topics; the role of religion in American public life gets slighted. At a time when the secular market is rich in titles that deal with American civic and civil life--what used to be called "the public philosophy"--and the urgent topic of "the market" and what it means for the human spirit, religious publishers and departments and authors leave a considerable void.
"Religion is a private affair," that old American dictum, seems to be holding up in the book world more than in the worlds of daily, weekly, and monthly journalism and broadcasting that we monitor. But there are some books on public life, and in a future "Sightings" we will sight and preview a few of them. That personal and private religion is "big" as a category, as Garrett points out, is an important public fact--too little reflected upon in the world of books.