Thirty-one years before Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote his book on rearing babies, a woman named West committed her parental wisdom to print. She called her compendium of advice "Infant Care."

Now in its 14th printing, with 60 million copies distributed, West's homey how-to manual tops the Government Printing Office's all-time best-seller list.

"It's still selling," GPO official Terry Ware said. "We hope it lasts forever."

Thirty million copies of "Baby and Child Care" have made Spock a household name, while the author of "Infant Care," first printed in 1914, remains virtually unknown. In a brief forward, her posthumous federal editors remember her to readers simply as "Mrs. Max West."

The story of "Infant Care" is much the story of the GPO, which profitably publishes more material than most of the world's major commercial publishing houses. The government's official printer introduces 3,000 to 4,000 new titles annually, providing information from the arcane to the indispensable.

As Bill Cosby, John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum climbed the familiar summer best-seller lists, the perennially popular "Statistical Abstract of the United States" moved to the top of GPO's list for May, the last month for which figures are available. The Agriculture Department's "Hassle-Free Guide to a Better Diet" finished a close second, and the State Department's "Hostage- Taking: Preparation, Avoidance and Survival" made its debut on the chart at No. 3.

They represent three of the GPOs main genres: official data, public-service messages and instructional manuals for government employes.

The "Statistical Abstract" quantifies the life of the nation. Through hundreds of tables and hundreds of thousands of figures, it records such vital signs as voter participation and annual precipitation.

The "Hassle-Free Guide," a one-page color brochure that sells for $1, advises readers to choose a variety of foods from the four basic food groups, not exceeding 1,200 calories daily. "The extra calories that you get and your body does not use up are stored as fat," it explains.

"Hostage Taking" was written for embattled Foreign Service officers, but has found an audience among corporate executives and private security companies. It counsels potential targets of terrorists to "update your will and have several conformed copies made," to refrain from futile acts of resistance, to "digress into irrelevancies" during interrogation and to use mental exercises to maintain sanity in solitary confinement.

A few reassuring words are sprinkled among the sober suggestions. For example, the section on torture notes, "Many people find that they can tolerate much more than they thought they could."

Authors of these publications typically go unacclaimed, their agencies alone credited.

There are no promotional tours, no motion picture contracts and few if any critical reviews. Nevertheless, through a subscriber catalog, a series of mailing lists, 10 retail stores and a regular clientele of businesses and government offices, the GPO gets its words out.

In fiscal 1986, the GPO generated $768.4 million worth of printed material, including an array of periodicals. Slightly less than a third of the volume was printed on government presses. In recent years, the agency has returned a several-million-dollar surplus to the Treasury.

Prices for the books on the best-seller list generally fall under $10, but there are exceptions. The "Statistical Abstract" runs $29 in cloth and the "Occupational Outlook Handbook" sells for $23 in cloth. The child-care paperbacks range from $2 to $3. GPO prices books at 50 percent above cost.

The GPO maintains almost 200,000 square feet of warehouse in Laurel, where it keeps nearly 12 million volumes in stock. A corps of clerks tracks the inventory by continuously updating old-fashioned card files.

The government's all-time best sellers tend toward timeless topics. In addition to No. 1 "Infant Care," with 17 million copies sold and 43 million distributed by federal agencies, four of the top 13 focus on child rearing.

Other best sellers are wallet-size cards on metric conversion and rescue breathing, the annual "Economic Report of the President" and the "Occupational Outlook Handbook."

And then there are the publications that capture the public's imagination. The GPO has sold about 9,000 of the Meese commission's report on pornography, about 27,000 copies of the Rogers commission report on the space shuttle disaster and 12,499 of the Tower commission report on the Iran-contra affair.

But few federal publications rival the recurring appeal of, say, "Tables of Redemption Values for U.S. Savings Bonds, Series EE," which ranked sixth in May with sales of 6,460. Federal booksellers moved only one copy of "Teaching Parents to be the Primary Sexuality Educators, Executive Summary." The full-length version of the Health and Human Services primer did much better.

Federal law prohibits the GPO from slashing its prices or "remaindering" overstock. When a particular title gets too dusty, the GPO offers its stock to the agency that produced it. Unwanted stockpiles are ultimately sold as scrap paper. The GPO sold books valued at $2.8 million for scrap last year, recouping about $37,000, according to official statistics.

GPO officials are loath to describe the scrap heap as "lousy sellers." Less popular titles are often "directed to just a few people," program analyst Michael Bright said.

One book directed to just a few people, Bright recalled, was a comprehensive illustrated guide to ticks -- the nasty little arachnids. "This guy devoted his life to the tick catalog," Bright said. "You wonder, where are the people who are sitting down studying ticks all day?"

The GPO's more obscure books on insects and such are a sensitive point with Bright's boss, Superintendent of Documents Donald E. Fossedal, who asks one favor: "Please don't write about the sex life of the tsetse fly."