Let us now praise the Statistical Abstract.

In this age of information, it stands out from all other data books like the Hope Diamond on a heap of coal. Moreover, it exemplifies that oddity in government: the program that works. Indeed, the Statistical Abstract, published by the Census Bureau, is so successful that it's copied (literally) by private publishers.

Of course, you may consider the Statistical Abstract as dreary as dishwater. It isn't much to look at: a 1,048-page book of fine print and small tables, 1,532 of them. The index alone runs 45 pages, and any fan of the abstract is likely to be judged a candidate for sympathy, if not medical attention.

Well, so be it. At the risk of being carted off to a funny farm, let the word go forth, here and now, about the joys of reading the Statistical Abstract. Apply a bid of imagination, and the abstract jumps to life. It's a feast for the trivia addict, the serious scholar and anyone in between. It paints a vast picture of American life in astonishing detail and enthralling complexity.

The mountains of numbers should satisfy all but the most revenuous appetite for information. Where else can you easily discover how many people wear eyeglasses? In 1971, 49.2 percent of Americans and 88.3 percent of those over 45 did. Or, how many Americans drink fluoridate water? In 1975, that was 49.2 percent, to, ranging from a low of 2.3 percent in Utah to 98.4 percent in the District of Columbia. Or, how much money do Americans contribute to charity? In 1976 that came to $29.4 billion, with religious organizations receiving $12.8 billion.

If you need a refresher course in American geography, it's here. In 1970, the center point of the country's population was 5.3 miles from Mascoutah City Hall in St. Clair County in southwestern Illinois. Remarkably, that's only about 250 miles southwest of the center point in 1900. Sunbelt or not, the nation's guts remain in the Northeast and the upper Midwest. And guts they are: population density along the Atlantic coast is almost twice that along the Atlantic coast is almost twice that along the Pacific, 406 people per square mile compared with 192.

As for political curiosities, they abound. Of the 292 Democrats elected to the House of Representatives in November 1976, 22 had no opposition and another 159 won with more than 65 percent of the vote. Who was the most veto-prone president? Why Franklin D. Roosevelt, who never faced a Republican Congress but voted 635 bills anyway (and had only nine over-ridden). Harry S. Truman was runner-up with 250 and Dwight D. Eisenhower a distant third with 181.

How huge is the advantage of an incumbend congressman running for reelection? Judge for yourself. Since 1956, in only one election have fewer than 80 percent of the incumbent candidates won reelection. In eight out of those 12 elections, more tan 90 percent of the incumbents were reelected. The rate of defeat for senators is only slightly higher. Only twice in those 12 elections have as many as a third of the incumbents been defeated.

Like all good books, the Statistical Abstract can be read and re-read, and, at eacch new reading, it yields additional satisfaction. If you follow fads and fashions, the abstract will help you keep track. Since 1965, for example, color television has changed from a luxury to a necessity. In 1965, only 9.5 percent of homes had color sets, but by 1976, that had jumped to 77.7 precent. And away-from-hospital births are enjoying a new vogue. In 1975, they totaled 39,000, almost twice the number in 1970.

The numbers also provide intriguing insights into current social trends and political issues. If most people know that the divorce rate has skyrocketed - it's actually doubled since 1950 - they forget that remarriages also have risen rapidly. Consequently, the population is almost as married today as it ever was. In 1950, 71.8 percent of the men over 18 were married, but, in 1976, that was a tad higher at 72.2 percent (though the peak was 76.4 percent in 1960). For women, 66.2 percent were married in 1976 against 70.9 percent in 1950 and a high of 71.9 percent in 1955.

And a table on page 457 helps explain why poverty is viewed primarily as a problem of black Americans. Although more than twice as many whites as blacks were officially classified as "poor" in 1976 (16.7 million against 8.3 million), white poverty is more dispersed and less visible.

Only about one in five "poor" white families in metropolitan areas live in "poverty" neighborhoods - defined as being 20 percent or more "poor." By contrast, about 60 percent of blacks live in those neighborhoods. Nor surprisingly, many whites view poverty as a black problem, and many blacks - though not "officially" poor - may feel it, becouse they are surrounded by so much poverty.

The Statistical Abstract is all the more impressive because it is assembled by a small band of about a dozen men and women. You might think that theirs is a relatively simply job of updating old tables, but there's more to it than that. The abstract distills not just government data, but also information collected by hundreds of private and international groups. The basic problem is simple: information glut.

Inundated with new data, the abstract has managed to sift and sort and keep its size constant. The newest edition added 131 tables and omitted 64 included in the previous edition. Gone, for example, is a table detailing characteristics of college faculty members and another giving the duration of marriage for married women. In both cases, the information - which dated to the early 1970s - wasn't recent enough to compete with more current data.

The pity of the abstract is that more people don't know about it and don't use it. The Government Printing Office ordered a press run of only 42,000 copies and apparently has overpriced the book at $11 in cloth cover and $8.50 in paper. Because all the information is in the public domain, Grosset and Dunlap Inc. reprints the entire book (under the title U.S. Fact Book) and sells it for about half the price. This saves the abstract from total obscurity.

Still, there's a small band of faithful who worship the abstract. Mostly, they wander about alone, wondering whether anyone else shares their fanaticism. And occasionally they meet - at funny farms and other places.