The latest edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States arrived recently, providing some welcome diversion from the grim news that passes for real life these days. No reporter likes admitting that he's in someone else's pocket, but we might as well concede that we're on the take from the Census Bureau. As long as we're on the complimentary mailing list, we're probably going to tout the Abstract.

It isn't for everyone, of course. Only a small breed of eccentrics find their pleasure reading in 931 pages of tables. It requires a sort of idiot's delight for numbers: an ability to appreciate the comic possibilities of odd bits of trivia, a fascination with the changes chronicled by statistics and a curiosity about some of the mysteries they raise.

Did you know, for example, that scouting enrollment has fallen sharply since 1970, by almost 50 percent for boys and more than 20 percent for girls? That's a much steeper drop than the decline in these young age groups. Are all children becoming pot-heads? Or merely cynics? Are the scouting organizations unable to adjust to changing times, or deliberately unwilling? None of the above?

This year's Statistical Abstract offers a special opportunity for instructive comparison, because it is the 100th anniversary edition. To thumb through the first edition (kindly lent by the people at the Census Bureau, who know a patsy when they see one) is to munch on some of history's appetizers.

Anyone wondering about the real meaning of "productivity" need only glance at the agricultural statistics in the two volumes.

Between 1868 and 1877, American farmers harvested an average of 12.1 bushels of wheat and 26.4 bushels of corn an acre. By 1978, the per-acre yield had jumped to 31.6 bushels of wheat and 101.2 bushels of corn.

When the first Statistical Abstract was published, the United States was still a developing country to much of the world. Roughly 70 percent of our cotton crop went abroad, about two-thirds to the thriving textile and clothing industry in England. That was our biggest export, but most other exports also consisted of raw materials: wheat, corn, lard, bacon and (if you can believe it) oil, which was used primarily for lighting.

The first Abstract sketches a nation in the midst of monumental industrial growth and westward expansion. Between 1865 and 1877, railroad trackage more than doubled to 79,208 miles; in Texas, trackage quintupled and, in California, it increased by a factor of 10. The steel industry grew in unison. Not surprisingly, imports of steel rail, which accounted for about one-third of our use in 1870, had almost vanished eight years later.

Large floods of immigrants continued to provide the human grease for this growth; between 1871 and 1878, there were 2.1 million of them, which was about 5 percent of the 1870 population of 38.6 million. But our rising wealth also was beginning to change living habits. We slowly were becoming a nation of coffee drinkers. Between 1830 and 1878, annula per capita consumption more than doubled to 6.5 pounds. Coffee represented nearly one-third of our duty-free imports. Sugar was about one-fourth of our dutiable imports, but we also imported considerable volumes of luxury goods, such as silk clothing.

The first Abstract provides a few such indirect glimpses into everyday life, but its 157 pages focused mainly on government finances, banking activity and foreign trade, with small doses of information on industrial production and population change. More than anything else, the contemporary version confirms our growing mania for measuring almost every aspect of national life. Today you still can document the American taste for coffee, which appears to be waning (per capita consumption dropped from 15.8 pounds in 1960 to 9.7 pounds in 1978); but you also can learn that about two-fifths of coffee drinkers have between two and five cups daily, and 10 percent have six or more.

Historian Daniel J. Boorstin, now the Librarian of Congress, pointed out a few years ago that the significance of this obsession with measuring goes beyond mere curiosity. In business the perfection of measurement systems created new industries and spurred mass merchandising. The development of accurate actuarial tables caused life insurance sales to flourish, and "the sudden demand for uniforms in great quantity [during the Civil War] produced a fund of new information on the common dimensions of the human body" -- information that led to standardized sizes and less expensive clothing.

In much the same way, the availability of statistics subtly drives much of our soical policy and politics by shaping our perception of reality. Data on income distribution, housing conditions and endangered species have helped generate political pressures for government action. Numbers are the ammunition of advocacy.

In the new Abstract, there is plenty for everyone. Feminists predictably will be appalled to reconfirm that, despite the massive entry of women into the work force, some key professions remain the almost exclusive preserve of men. In 1978, only 1.6 percent of all engineers were women, though that was double the 1976 level.

And anyone who believes research and development spending is inadequate will be troubled; although such spending (after adjustment for inflation) rose more than 60 percent in the 1960s, the increase in the 1970s was less than 15 percent. That barely exceeded the population increase.

Some huge social changes also leap from the tables. Consider the section on education. The first table tells the story of the startling decline of one-room, neighborhood schoolls. As recently as 1940, there were more than 100,000 one-teacher schools; in 1977, the total was only 1,000. Another table shows the huge increase in college education, and yet another the striking increase in early schooling. In 1965, about 10 percent of three-year-olds and four-year-olds went to school; by 1978, two-fifths of the blacks and one-third of the whites in this age group were in school.

Our historic passion for education has continued. But recent test scores -- conspiculously missing from the Abstract -- have been disappointing. sIt makes you wonder whether we are schooling more and learning less.

With a little reflection, who says reading the Abstract has to be dull?