I was parsing an article in Publishers Weekly the other day, on American reading (of books) habits.
Overall, Pew found that the share of Americans who have read a book in any format in the last year held steady at 73%, largely unchanged since 2012. But that’s down from 79% in 2011, the first year Pew began researching people’s reading habits. Pew also found that the average number of books read per year has also remained steady since 2012, at 12. But again, that number is also down, from 14 in 2011.
Meanwhile, in another survey released last month, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that just 43% of adults read at least one “work of literature” for pleasure in the previous year—the lowest share since the NEA started tracking reading habits in the early 1980s. The recent figure is down from a high of 57% in 1982. Trade publishers will be most concerned by the NEA stat, because the NEA survey specifically covers novels, plays, short stories, and poetry, excluding nonfiction and reading for school or work.
Let’s parse this out a bit. I write fiction, so while my writing may not be “literature” it would fall under that category. So only 43% of adults read at least one book. Less than half. This is shocking to many of my author acquaintances, but I remind them that they are the exception, not the rule, when they read multiple books per year — side note, if you are an author and you are not reading multiple books per MONTH you are not serious about your craft.
On the surface, this is depressing stuff. But if you dig into these polls a bit, such as the way Atlantic Monthly did, or the way Forbes did (note there are more recent article than this 2012 one, which say the same thing) then there is some optimism, on several fronts.
First area of optimism, the advent of electronic devices has not destroyed book reading. Possibly (but proving cause and effect is harder than correlation) it may have helped. Facebook (as an example) was founded in 2004. Yet, the highest level of reading is with young adults and teens. Guess what “screen time” is not the end of the world! But, it is still true that kids learn about reading books (not reading per se, they get lots of reading done) is correlated with if your parents read. I generally agree with Jordan Shapiro on this. If kids don’t read books, its because their parents don’t. Don’t blame the screen time!
What’s the bottom line? Things seem to have stabilized with tentative information that reading is on a glacier increase for younger adults. Your job? Read a book (in particular a book for the fun of it, not for work).