I suppose it's okay to talk about this out in the open.

Because it occurs to me that what you may really want to know about these books is how they stack up as bathroom reading. That's where many of us peruse all these almanacs, books of lists, trivia compilations, catalogues, and so forth. What's required for this particular aspect of recreational reading is a book you can pick up, open at random and be fascinated by for up to 10 minutes. You also have to be able to abandon it without a backward glance.

Using the bathroom standard, the book by the People's Almanac gang is clearly the winner. Their book of predictions is much fatter, more crammed with intriguing information and more chock-full of quotable experts on every conceivable facet of tomorrow. In a way it's like the biggest issue of the National Enquirer ever printed.

This is not to imply that Wallace, Wallechinsky and Wallace don't take the task of helping us cope with the rest of this century seriously. They, and their staff of nearly 50, have stuffed "The Book of Predictions" with words of wisdom from experts on what our world will be like over the next few decades, covering the future of the economy, urban life, sex, energy, space travel and you-name-it.

But in their zeal to cover everything they've been too catholic in issuing invitations to their mammoth symposium. Thus you find Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova rubbing shoulders with Mother Shipton and Jeane Dixon, Ashley Montagu and Arthur C. Clarke sharing the platform with Immanuel Velikovsky. There is expert advice on which nations will succumb to famine by the year 2000 along with news of what Johnny Carson may be up to in 1999.

Even so, the Wallace family book will give you quite a few hours of enjoyable, thought-provoking and time-killing reading. Within its pages former CIA agents anticipate that the United States will cease to be a great power, recycled-garbage mavens see a future dominated by reused wastes, priests foresee a world without communism, business consultants predict a rosy tomorrow where brain implants and new drugs will control our moods, guilts, fears and even wraths. Not surprisingly, a great many personal axes get ground and all sorts of scenarios for the waning years of the 20th century are put forth.

Once you've made your way through the entire book you may, as I did, derive some hope from the fact that few of the gathered experts can agree on what exactly lies ahead for us in the way of joy or gloom. As Arthur C. Clarke says in his section, "Strictly speaking, the very concept of prediction is logical nonsense. . . . The best that can be done -- and sometimes even this is a very poor best -- is to outline the entire spectrum of possible futures and assign probabilities to each item." Although the future goes on being unpredictable, "The Book of Predictions" gives you a good many probabilities to play with.

Joe Fisher's "Predictions" limits itself to the next 20 years. The jacket blurb explains, "The next two decades have been the focus of more astonishing predictions that any other period in recorded history." This being so, it's disappointing that so little of this alleged mountain of material got between the covers of this skinny volume.

The book leans much more toward the goofy side of future-seeing than the Wallace book does. There is much space given to Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce and similar soothsayers. Indeed only 40-some pages concern themselves with qualified futurists and even this section draws considerably on what's been predicted in old science fiction novels by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. One of the book's muddy photos is a joke wherein Asimov gazes into a crystal ball. This mixing of the legit with the foolish pretty well sums up Fisher's effort.