Reading Books: 3 Out Of 4 Americans Do It

August 23rd, 2007 · 6 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

So here’s the deal: depending on how you interpret the numbers, one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year* or three out of four Americans read at least one book last year. If you stick with the latter statistic, that’s a whole lot of reading going on. Remember, this is a really big country.

The survey fails to wonder whether online reading plays a minor or major role in people’s lives.

Americans are readers (as noted in my detailed pool-side survey of human behavior). Americans, possibly very much like our ancestors, are also busy people. At the risk of stating the obvious (life is nothing if not a series of risks), does anyone really believe that reading rates among our forebears where appreciably higher? I feel safe in stating the cave people did not have book clubs.

Let me restate that. The cave people surely got together for the drinking part of book clubs, but likely did not read the monthly selection. Unless they were lucky enough to have the text reprinted in a local cave.

Literacy rates among our species have risen, sure, but the demands on our attention have risen in concert with reading skills. Frankly, even I want to do something different with my eyes on some days. My life is a constant inflow of words and thoughts and, yes, thinking about the words and thoughts. Sometimes, I just need to get away from text. After a brief respite, I always come back to the printed word.

So maybe we shouldn’t worry that men don’t really consume fiction at the same rates as women; on the other hand, maybe the industry should concede that men don’t consume fiction at the same rate as women. Perhaps this means offering more fiction that entices the male fiction gene. Perhaps it means realizing that catering to the female reader is a logical business plan. Most definitely it means that we can abandon all attempts to shove “guy lit” down the throats of the nation.

One thing the survey highlights is that education plays a role in adult reading, as does disposable time (let’s face it, the young are busy partying, establishing careers, raising kids — these activities tend to cut into hours that could be spent reading):

Among those who said they had read books, the median figure _ with half reading more, half fewer _ was nine books for women and five for men. The figures also indicated that those with college degrees read the most, and people aged 50 and up read more than those who are younger.

I see this as a clarion call for more time spent on story hour in the classroom and less time spent on endless standardized tests. But that’s me — a happy, well-read product of a system that made reading an education priority.

The survey seems somewhat contradictory, noting that people who never attend church read more often — while also noting that religious works dominate reading lists:

The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre _ including politics, poetry and classical literature _ were named by fewer than five percent of readers.

“Popular fiction” is also undefined in the Washington Post article, though one could probably guess that it comprises a mix of mystery and women’s fiction and Harry Potter. But basically the list suggests that reading tastes, like shoes, are diverse. Hmm, maybe this survey will, finally, put an end to the non-stop Bush Administration tell-alls that tell nothing.

The greatest difficulty I have with this survey is that, like so many others, it tiptoes up to a question before retreating. While noting that online activity is a distraction from reading books, it fails to wonder whether online reading plays a minor or major role in people’s lives. Is it possible that reading is as susceptible to human innovation as other entertainment media?

Naturally, I have more to say, but I have to get my morning reading done. For those who wonder, it’s a mix of news and email. Can’t start the day without it.

* – No word on whether they listened to books or not.

File Under: Square Pegs

6 responses so far ↓

  • RfP // Aug 23, 2007 at 8:00 am

    The National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2002, 9% of American adults read online and 12% listened to audiobooks.

    For what it’s worth, this new AP poll’s numbers are different from other (much larger, more carefully done) surveys by the Census, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, and others. I compared them in boring detail here. Basically, the other surveys find that more like 45-60% of Americans read books, not 73% as the AP found.

  • booklover // Aug 25, 2007 at 9:13 am

    Well, you can put me in the category that does think our forebears read more. The reason? They had more time. They didn’t have the interference of the boob tube or the microchip and in many cases they had more time while they were taking trips, given that it took two weeks to cover ground that today we cover in an hour. I also think their appreciation of books was greater given the paucity of the supply (at least at the very beginning of our country’s journey). If you had to send away to Paris or London or later to New York to get a book, you appreciated it far greater than if all you had to do was drive to the mall. Just from my unscientific observations, I think about 60 percent of those who come into our store are there because they either need a book for school or work or because they are building a deck or some singular activity. The other 40 percent come in because they love books and want to read whatever it is that piques their interest. Finally, let me share with you an anecdotal piece from a time when I used to toil in the field of journalism. I was sitting in on jury selection for a trial concerning a corrupt public official. One of the questions asked of jurors was “how often do you read a book or newspaper”. By my count, 95 percent of those didn’t read either. Certainly not representative of the general population, I know, but scary nonetheless.

  • Sunday is fun day at pinkyspaperhaus // Aug 26, 2007 at 8:31 am

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  • jill // Aug 26, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    I agree that our forebearers didn’t read more, since reading requires both education and time and that wasn’t a combination that most groups of people had access to until the twentieth century. Unless you were from a leisure class, or the upper part of the middle class that could afford to employ servants, you were probably too busy keeping house or working to have the time to read. And there have always been other distractions besides reading and television: talking with friends, playing cards, playing/listening to music, gambling, listening to the radio, going to the theater, board games, sports.

  • Harry Robbins // Aug 28, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    This was a very informative web page. I am an exception to your stats— a male between the ages of45-55 who reads every historical romance (yes of the medaeval variety) I can get a hold of. I also read fantasy. (I’ve read all the Harry Potter’s) I now read an average of 10-12 of these types of novels per year. I never read but maybe 1 book a year until I was about 45. I never enjoyed reading as much as when I decided I wanted to write a book. Though I haven’t had any of my three high fantasies published. I intend to break into the market with high fantasy/romance. My favorite author is Karen Whiddon of Ft. Worth, Texas. I belong to the very renowned DFW Writer’s group. Hope you’ll be reading my novels soon.

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