Are Readers a Rare Breed?: An Investigation into the Decline of Reading in America

Writers, English teachers, and book lovers alike are in for some good and bad news. While the decline in reading or so-called “demise of books” seems exaggerated, there has been a steady decline in reading over the years. According to an often-cited Pew Research study (though frequently criticized for its small sample size), the percentage of Americans who read at least one book each year has fallen only slightly between 2011 and 2016, descending from 79% to 73%.1 This statistic seems hopeful, as, at this rate, the majority of Americans will continue to read for many years to come. Even with the advent of other digital distractions, book publications earned approximately $26 billion in 2018, which would barely seem the mark of a dying industry.2

However, as revealed by a more credible American Time Use Survey, the decline in pleasure reading between 2004 and 2018 is significantly greater, falling 30% in the 14-year span,3 or an average of about 2% each year. The Washington Post claims, “in 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans 15 and older read for pleasure on any given day. [In 2017], the figure was about 19 percent.”3 Fewer people are picking up books each day. The amount of time Americans spend reading also declined from an average of “23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes…in 2017” according to the same article.3

In contrast, the New Yorker’s breakdown suggests that “when Americans sit down to read, they still typically read for about an hour and a half.”4 According to this model, “reading is in decline because the population is now composed of fewer readers,”4 or, the average overall reading time of Americans dropped because there are fewer people reading, not because they are reading for fewer hours. However, both perspectives suggest the same upsetting reality: the number of American readers is declining.

While the general trend is slow, steady, and negative, the cultural shift surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may have rekindled reading, at least in 2020. After millions of people around the world were quarantined, furloughed from their jobs, and prevented from socializing and recreating in their usual ways, people began consuming media, including books, in larger quantities than they did before. In September 2020, 60% of people reported reading “more than normal” during the pandemic, with only about 20% admitting to reading less than they normally would.5 Only time will tell if this trend continues through the return to normal life, though people’s willingness to turn to books for entertainment is reassuring.

Further, the decline of reading is more exaggerated in certain groups, as certain types of people tend to read more than others due to their interest level in and access to books. Women and the college-educated are the most avid readers, with only 22% of women and 8% of college graduates reporting not having read a book in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center.1 Men tend to read slightly less than women on average, with 33% reporting not having read in the past year. A similar disparity is reflected between white and black Americans (22% for white and 33% for black Americans) and between urbanites/suburbanites and rural dwellers (24% for urbanites/suburbanites and 33% for rural dwellers).2

Hispanics and those with only a high school diploma or less read the least—40% and 44% respectively reporting not having read a book in the past year—most likely prevented by poverty and a lack of access.1 Likewise, the high number of youth readers (80% of 18–29-year-olds reported reading at least one book in the past 12 months)1 is more likely due to required reading for school than a passion for books. Meanwhile, seniors, despite reading in a smaller quantity (67% for those over 65)1, probably do so because they genuinely enjoy reading for fun.

Quantifying the amount people read is, obviously, an incredible challenge, especially with the emergence of eBooks and audiobooks. While the Pew Research Study includes extensive data on the number of eBook and audiobook readers, other studies and surveys are less candid in their definition of “books,” which means that these modes of reading may be excluded from their number sets. Surveying people is, additionally, a feat in and of itself, with people liable to exaggerate their reading habits or forget how many books they read, and cultivating a large enough sample size is difficult. In turn, much of the data gathered is inconclusive. Regardless, the consensus remains that book reading is indisputably in decline.

This has a variety of implications for the future. Caleb Crain in The New Yorker warns of “secondary orality” (a term used to describe culture after the demise of literature) and its potential effect on politics as people “may be less likely to spend time with ideas [they] disagree with” and, thus, develop a more narrow-minded, ignorant perspective.4 Additionally, a culture without books misses out on the vast and varied personal health and wellbeing benefits that books offer, as outlined here. A steep downfall in reading (though in-school reading may persevere) will also likely exacerbate illiteracy, a social ill which can be explored here.

Reporting these statistics is not meant to sadden the book lovers of the world. Instead, it serves as a grave reminder of the work many must do, starting with parents, teachers, and organizations like Our Future Reads, to foster a continued love of this important, beneficial, and, frankly, fun pastime. Books are awesome, and the loss of reading is a loss that Americans shouldn’t be willing to take.  

  1. “Book Reading 2016.” Pew Research Center.  1 Sept. 2016.
  2. Handley, Lucy. “Physical Books Still Outsell E-Books–And Here’s Why.” CNBC. 19 Sept. 2019.
  3. Ingraham, Christopher. “Leisure Reading in the U.S. is at an All-time Low.” The Washington Post. 29 June 2018.
  4. Crain, Caleb. “Why We Don’t Read, Revisited.” The New Yorker. 14 June 2018. Why We Don’t Read, Revisited | The New Yorker
  5. “How Reading Habits Have Changed During the COVID-19 Lockdown.” The Conversation. 5 Oct. 2020.

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