Pressed for time and hungry for solace, many Americans are seeking spiritual nurture and serenity in small, so-called "meditation books" that are proliferating in the inspriation and self-help sections of the nation's bookstores.

The little paperbacks turn up in secular and religious bookstores alike, featuring short, upbeat reflections meant to be taken a page a day through the year. Their titles aim at all manner of readers - men, women, parents, brides, the overworked, the sexually abused, former smokers and many others.The pocket-size books, about $10 each, with 200 words or fewer per page, are portable, relatively cheap and a very quick read.

Readers swear by their value.

Anne Morgan Baker, an Atlanta museum official, said she was given "Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much," by Anne Wilson Schaef, as a gift some time ago.

"I consider it something to center me at the beginning of the day, to give me some focus for whatever transpires on a given day," she said.

That book is fairly typical of the genre. The theme for July 4, for example, is self-esteem. There is a brief, opening quotation, in this case from Rebecca West: "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."

The meditation follows, beginning, "When a woman believes that she is equal, she is called uppity." And the page closes with this final thought, in boldface: "Battering comes in many forms. My self-esteem is constantly assailed, yet it's really mine when I get right down to it."

Since 1990, when the book was published, it has sold about one million copies, according to the publisher, Harper Collins.

Robin Seaman, an associate marketing manager for Harper Collins, called the book an unusually high seller in a genre in which she estimated individual titles often sell in the tens of thousands of copies. "I think they do very well overall," she said, but added that the market was becoming saturated.

Theresa Ford, a 39-year-old mental health therapist in Washington, said meditation books "help me with my spiritual life - they start my day off, and help me keep perspective."

She said she and several of her friends were reading a book called "Acts of Faith," published by Simon & Schuster. "It's written specifically for people of color," she said.

In "Acts of Faith," one day's meditation is all about diversity. "True power, our power, is in our diversity and difference," the meditation begins. It closes with this thought: "Today I will honor and respect the power in difference."

Another meditation book reader is Phil Lane, 43, who sells trees to Miami landscapers. "I've got a couple that I use just to get myself on track in the morning, just to plant something in my mind every day," he said.

Leroy McBean, an assistant manager for Coliseum Books at Broadway and West 57th Street in Manhattan, recalled directing a woman who had just lost her job to meditation books that specialized in handling stress.

Readership of these books represents a spiritual practice outside the bounds of organized religion and traditional private piety, said Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of "Sharing the Journey" (Free Press), a study of support groups. "I think this is really a very significant phenomenon," he said.

The Rev. Bobbi Patterson, associate chaplain at Emory University in Atlanta, said meditations books appear to be more popular among women than men, at least on that campus.

Use of the books "has some echoes with the old, daily prayer rituals, but in a contemporary form," she said. "My experience is these are not people who are looking for a quick, fast-food religious fix. They care very much about their spirituality, but their trust levels about traditional forms of prayer or liturgy are very low."

Daily, inspirational readings have a long history in Americans' spiritual lives. In earlier generations, when the Bible might have been the only book in the house, families marked their days by reading a scriptural passage aloud. Many still do.

Even that habit may be on the rise, albeit with a twist. Devotional Bibles, combining a daily Scripture with advice on how to apply it to everyday life, are on the best seller list of the Christian Booksellers Asociation, an international trade group that represents Christian retail stores and religious supply companies.

"I think there is a whole new wave of renewed interest in a devotional life, a life of meaning," said Bill Anderson, the association's president. "Some of this is driven by people of Christian faith who want to increase their personal level" of religious experience, he added.

Still, many in the current crop of meditation books owe as much to the "recovery movement," which has drawn millions of Americans into "12-step" groups based on the methods used by Alcoholics Anonymous. Since 1990, A.A. has published its own meditation book, "Daily Reflections," which has sold about 750,000 copies, said a spokeswoman for the group.

Also driving the market is a broad and growing fascination with all things spiritual. The recovery boom of the 1980s led to a spirituality boom of the '90s, and meditation books serve as "a touchstone for people," said Leslie Johnson-Byrne, a trade marketing manager at the Hazelden Foundation, the Center City, Minn., operator of alcohol and drug treatment centers and publisher of recovery literature.

Three Hazelden meditation books have sold more than a million copies each, the foundation says.

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Americans are hungry for spiritually nurturing words, said Janet Thoma, vice president of Thomas Nelson, a Nashville-based publisher of Christian books. Earlier in the decade, Nelson published its Serenity Meditation series, with about a dozen books aimed at overeaters, workaholics and stressed-out teenagers. Some have sold more than 150,000 copies, Thoma said.

The company is now publishing books aimed at wider markets, including couples and grandmothers.

For some, buying daily meditations is an act of impulse. Gregory Lecklitner, a 43-year-old Miami psychologist, saw the spiral-bound "Thoughts from the Seat of the Soul" by Gary Zukav, a meditation that is designed like a small, desktop calendar, and snapped it up. "I've set it up on my dresser and I've tried to put it as part of my routine of getting ready for work in the morning," he said.

Some people buy the books to give to others. Sam Guncler, an actor in Manhattan, said he purchased one for a friend. "We're a nation of battered people and we're looking for comfort," he said. "It's not that these books by themselves will help you, but if you are ready to accept what they're saying, they can be great help."

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