August 8, 2005
-- Martin E. Marty
Sightings's publisher, editor, and this writer, along with much of the rest of America, recently left their desks for a couple of weeks, which is the equivalent of our wearing sleep masks and doing no sighting. And like so many others, we packed off with books we'd been wanting to read all year. I also packed an article about books, one that led me to wonder and ponder.
"Why Don't Catholics Buy More Catholic Books?" is the question that author Lauren F. Winner raises in Publishers Weekly (May 30). A celebrated memoirist who has chronicled her times away from religion, as well as in Judaism, and now in the Episcopal Church, Winner has little at stake in the Catholics-buy-Catholic issue, yet it is clear that what she writes has a bearing beyond Catholic circles.
Winner points out that religion book sales have boomed, and these books are now selling at mega-bookstores and in discount chains. An NEA report demonstrated that while poetry and fiction sales decline, religion surges. Among whom? The Gallup people say evangelicals make up 21 percent of the population and Catholics 25 percent, but it is the evangelical market that prospers.
Winner might have done better to contrast evangelical/mainline markets. Not often noticed, but certifiable here as elsewhere, is this: Sociologically, demographically (Mexican-American infusion aside), and culturally, American Catholics and mainline Protestants share similar ups and downs. Measure belief, participation, or anything else, and you will find twins. Winner quotes experts who point out that Protestantism has always been a reading religion, while Catholics put less emphasis on the printed page. She also quotes others who remind us that evangelicals are the most market-driven, marketing-astute sector in American religion -- not much un-worldliness or otherworldliness there! They are gifted and zealous entrepreneurs.
Beyond the blockbuster-writing Rick Warren and the "Left Behind" book explosions, it is also evident that most of the evangelical books are geared toward women, and deal with the living of personal life. Winner claims that "about 80 percent of books are bought by women, [but] in the Catholic world almost all of the books have been written by men." On the other hand, personal-life evangelical well-sellers are written by women, for women.
Catholic publishers are taking note, coming up with various new kinds of products, new ways of marketing. Winner does well at reporting on all these. My pondering leads me to add something not stressed in her round-up: For a third of a century, Catholics and mainline Protestants have tended to "bleed" into the culture at large more than have evangelicals. The evangelicals have created a kind of world-within-a-world, with celebrities, entertainers, endorsers, promoters, and authors of their own.
Check this out: If you hear of study groups and reading circles in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, they are likely to be reading books with spiritual thrust, but directed to a market dubbed "public" or "secular." So the stellar novel Gilead is more likely to be on the priest or minister's recommendation list than are books by members of their own church written for members of their own church. Still, there are some first-rate authors and potential readers in "their own church" circles, and publishers seek them.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.