You may not think "fantastical" is a word, but it is. Bill Shakespeare used it (doubters can check Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene III), and if it's good enough for Bill, it's good enough for us.
"Fantastical" is precisely the word that springs to mind on receiving the latest Statistical Abstract of the United States.
The Abstract is to this column what the Chicago Cubs are to George Will: an annual, affectionate ritual. Every year, the Census Bureau ships us a review copy. We browse through it, bang out an easy column -- it's the only assured easy one of the year -- and put it on the shelf, where it serves as helper for the next 12 months.
Let it be said immediately that the Abstract is not the only book for dedicated trivologists. The Central Intelligence Agency has received too little credit for its memorable and useful "Handbook of Economic Statistics." That volume tells you, among other things, that world economic production totaled $11.1 trillion in 1979, with North America, Japan and Europe accounting for nearly $7 trillion.
And for chuckles and a reminder of society's unimaginable complexity, can anyone beat the "Encyclopedia of Associations"? An item in the index reveals that the whereabouts of the Henry David Thoreau Society for Quiet Desperation are unknown. It's listed among the nation's missing associations.
Among the unmissing, however, you will find the National Association of Spanish Speaking Librarians; the Foundation for Natural Living (Naturopathic), which, naturally enough, is based in California; the National Committee for Motor Fleet Supervisor Training; the International Border Fancy Canary Club; and the National Button Society.
But page for page and line for line, the Abstract has no peer.
The 101st edition, virtually the same size as last year's (1,059 pages versus 1,057), has somehow managed to cram 15 extra tables on top of last year's 1,601. Most of these tables can be found in a special section on residential energy consumption and conservation. In 1979, for example, average household energy costs in the Northeast and upper Midwest ($887 and $821) were nearly a third larger than the South's ($674) and almost double the West's ($469) -- mainly the result of higher heating expenses.
The Abstract is a book for the lazy reader. You don't have to begin at the beginning or end at the end. It is a meal full of hors d'oeuvres. Here are some:
Is America's love affair with ice cream coming to an end? Between 1975 and 1979, per capita consumption dropped nearly 6 percent, from 18.7 to 17.6 pounds.
Americans may not be as mobile as commonly supposed. In 1976, almost 56 percent of the population had lived in the same state all their lives. The state with the highest permanent population was Pennsylvania (74.9 percent), and the ones with the lowest were Nevada (13.1 percent), Alaska (20.9 percent), Arizona (20.9 percent), Florida (22.3 percent), Colorado (31.1 percent) and California (33.3 percent).
Women have made large gains in local politics. Between 1975 and 1979, the number of women holding local public office doubled from 7,089 to 14,364. Most of the increase occurred on city and town councils, where the number of women members increased from 5,365 to 11,461. But women are still only about 10 percent of the total.
Illegal immigration appears to be more than 17 times as large as it was in the mid-1960s. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Service located 52,000 illegal aliens; by 1979, that had risen to 889,000.
Popular opinion to the contrary, Americans are no more inundated with advertising than they were 30 years ago. In 1950 and 1979, advertising spending constituted about 2 percent of the economy's total output (gross national product). Newspapers now account for about 29 percent of that, television for 21 percent, direct mail for 13 percent, radio for 7 percent and magazines for 6 percent.
The Abstract, of course, is not unequivocally a good thing. Prolonged immersion in its tables can turn anyone into an incurable dataholic. Like most personality disorders, this one leads to distorted perceptions of reality. You've got it when you begin wondering whether the sharp rise in adult softball (30 million players in 1979, up from 16 million in 1970) has anything to do with the increasing divorce rate (now twice the level of the mid-1960s).
But used with moderation and common sense, the Abstract provides entertainment and enlightenment.
It's often said we're a society of increasing leisure. You'll find plenty of numbers to confirm how we use -- or abuse -- our free time. Between 1960 and 1979, professional basketball attendance exploded from 2 million to 10.7 million. But so did opera attendance, rising from 4.6 million in 1970 to 9.9 million. In the past two decades, the number of opera companies has grown nearly a third to 966 and the number of symphony orchestras increased a fourth to 1,540.
You also get a depressing sense of why some social changes have created such intractable political problems. Legal abortions? Their number doubled between 1973 and 1978 (to 1.4 million), an affront to right-to-lifers and a demonstration of need to abortion advocates. There are now roughly four abortions for every 10 live births.
Crime? The number of reported crimes doubled between 1967 and 1979 -- far more than the increase in population. Although increases slowed in the late 1970s, the 1979 total was still 50 percent higher than in 1970. America's prison system is straining at the seams. At the end of 1978, it held nearly 300,000 prisoners, about 50 percent more than eight years earlier.
The Abstract holds more than anyone can possibly absorb, which is why it's so useful to have around. But don't get the idea that it's perfect. On page 11, population density for the Midatlantic States (New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) is listed as 670.8 per square mile in 1970. Aha, a mistake. The real answer, according to the Abstract's own figures on area and population, is 362.