Are Americans reading less?


As I explained in an earlier post, my essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: A list of books quoted in the article. Today’s topic: Are Americans reading less?

  • “When George Gallup interviewed readers in 1937 [for the Book-of-the-Month Club], he found that 29 percent of all adults were reading books at that time. In 1955 the percentage had fallen to 17 percent.” The BOMC thereafter stopped commissioning the surveys, because they felt they were unreliable; Americans were too likely to exaggerate their reading habits to pollsters. [Al Silverman (identified in contributor's notes as "the president and chief operating officer of the Book-of-the-Month Club"), "The Fragile Pleasure," Daedalus, 1983.]

  • In a 1978 survey by Yankelovich, Skelly and White of 1,450 adults, which was commissioned by the Book Industry Study Group, 25 percent of Americans said they had read ten or more books in the previous six months, 30 percent said they had read one to nine books, 39 percent said they had read newspapers and magazines but no books, and 6 percent said they had read nothing at all. That is, 55 percent of Americans had read a book in the previous half-year. [Herbert Mitgang, "Study Finds Nearly Half in U.S. Do Not Read Books," New York Times, 14 November 1978. Ray Walters, "Who Reads What and Why," New York Times, 19 November 1978.]

  • A survey conducted by an academic consortium found that in 1998, 968 of 1,387 people (69.8 percent) reported having read a novel, short story, poem, or play not required for work or school in the previous twelve months. In 2002, the proportion was roughly the same, 987 out of 1393 (70.9 percent). [James A. Davis, Tom W. Smith, and Peter V. Marsden, General Social Surveys, 1972-2006 {institutional subscription required} (Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2007).]

  • In Reading at Risk, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the proportion of Americans who had read any creative literature in the previous year declined as follows: 56.9 percent in 1982, 54.0 percent in 1992, 46.7 percent in 2002. In 1982, more than 17,000 people were surveyed; in 1992, more than 12,000; and in 2002, more than 17,000. The proportion who read any book, literary or not, in the previous year declined from 60.9 percent in 1992 to 56.6 percent in 2002. (By comparison, in 2002, 95.7 percent of those surveyed watched at least one hour of television daily in the previous year. But the proportions of readers in other countries are similar: Canada 67 percent, Denmark 55 percent, Sweden 72 percent, United Kingdom 63 percent, Belgium 23 percent, Portugal 15 percent.) Among those who read any books, the median number they read in 2002 was six. Women, whites, the highly educated, the rich, those aged 45-64, and those in the West and Northeast were more likely to be literary readers. When the results were broken down by gender, race/ethnicity, education level, and age, the trend was downward in every subcategory. When age cohorts were compared across time, the trend was also downward. Because the decline is marked within each age group and race/ethnicity group, the decline cannot be explained by demographic shifts. Literary readers were more likely to attend performing arts events, go to museums, volunteer for charity work, and attend or play sports. Those who did not read literature watched 3.1 hours of television daily, as opposed to 2.7 hours daily for literary readers, but overall television watching seemed to have declined very slightly from 1982 to 2002. Because of population growth, the size of the American reading community has remained stable despite the proportional decline. The only increase: the proportion saying they write literature. [National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, June 2004.]

  • In the fall of 2005, a survey by Mediamark Research, Inc., found that only 35.4 percent of those surveyed had participated in the leisure activity of book reading in the previous year. This made it one of the highest-ranking leisure activities in the survey, which didn’t report on television watching or listening to music—reading a book had about the same as the frequency as barbecuing. The majority of readers engaged in the activity at least twice a week. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1225, "Adult Participation in Selected Leisure Activities by Frequency: 2005," citing Mediamark Research, Inc.]

  • 27 percent of American had read no books in the previous year, an Associated Press–Ipsos poll found in August 2007, in a survey of 1003 adults. The median number of books read was four overall (Gallup Polls found a median of five in 2005, ten in 1999, and six in 1990); seven if only readers were considered. Among readers, the median number of books read for women was nine; for men, five. Those who are white, have college degrees, are over 50, and vote Democratic tend to read more. Those who never attend religious services read nearly twice the number of book as those who attend regularly. The NEA’s report “To Read or Not to Read” points out that the AP-Ipsos poll did not ask respondents to exclude books they read for work or school. [The Associated Press and Ipsos Public Affairs, "Book Study," interview dates August 6–8, 2007. The Associated Press, "Poll: 1 in 4 U.S. adults read no books last year," International Herald Tribune, 21 August 2007.]

  • In a 2006 time-budget study, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American (age fifteen and over) reads for 0.33 hours (20 minutes) on weekdays and 0.44 hours (26 minutes) on weekends and holidays. By comparison, he watches television for 2.35 hours (2 hours 21 minutes) on weekdays and 3.10 hours (3 hours 6 minutes) on weekends and holidays. [Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, "Table 11. Time spent in leisure and sports activities for the civilian population by selected characteristics, 2006 annual averages," American Time-Use Survey 2006.]

  • Industry analysts Veronis Suhler Stevenson estimate that there has been little change lately in the number of hours that American spend with consumer books each year: 107 in 2000, 105 in 2001, 109 in 2002, 109 in 2003, 108 in 2004, —* in 2005, and —* in 2006. But there have been declines in the number of hours spent on newspapers and on magazines and increases in time spent with cable television, the internet, out-of-home media (such as billboards and in-elevator televisions), videogames, home video, and mobile electronic devices. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1110, "Media Usage and Consumer Spending, 2000-2009," citing earlier reports by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, and Veronis Suhler Stevenson, Communications Industry Forecast, 2007, page 54, table ES.13.] *Note: Veronis Suhler Stevenon provided me with their report as a courtesy and for the purposes of reporting; since they make a living by providing data and since I didn’t end up having room to quote them in the final published article, I’m only giving here the numbers from them that are also available in the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract.

  • A 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children found that on average they had spent 4 hours 15 minutes watching “screen media” (television, video, DVDs, and movies) the previous day, 1 hour 2 minutes on the computer, 49 minutes on video games, and 43 minutes reading for pleasure (books, magazines, newspapers). In a similar 1999 survey, children had watched 4 hours 4 minutes of screen media the previous day, spent 27 minutes on the computer, played video games for 26 minutes, and read for pleasure for 43 minutes (exactly the same amount of time!). The total time spent on media changed very slightly—from 6:19 to 6:21. The increases in consumption were fit in by multitasking. In 2004, 73 percent of the students surveyed said they had read for pleasure at least five minutes the previous day; 47 percent said they had read at least thirty minutes. Heavy users of any particular medium tended to consume more of all other kinds of media than light or moderate users. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, pages 24, 26, 37, 52.]

  • In a study of multitasking, using data collected in 2003 and 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that schoolchildren read for fun as their primary activity 2.14 hours a week but only focused on it exclusively 38 percent of the time. The children watched television as their primary activity 16.56 hours a week, and focused on it exclusively 55 percent of the time. The analysis drew on media-use diaries kept by 694 students. [Ulla G. Foehr, Media Multitasking among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, December 2006, pages 18-19.]

  • A 2005 survey of parents of children six and under found that the average child spends 1 hour 36 minutes daily consuming “screen media” (television, videos, video games, or computers), and only 40 minutes daily with a book (reading or being read to). 43 percent of children under age two watch television every day. 54 percent of two- to three-year-olds know how to change channels with the remote. 43 percent of four- to six-year-olds have a television in the bedroom; when their parents are asked about it, 30 percent say it’s to help the children fall asleep. The data were collected by a telephone survey of 1051 parents in November 2005. [Victoria Rideout and Elizabeth Hamel, The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and Their Parents, Kaiser Family Foundation, May 2006, pages 8, 18, 26.]

  • The proportion of twelfth graders who read for fun on their own at least once a month has declined as follows: 77 percent in 1992, 72 percent in 1994, 71 percent in 1998, 66 percent in 2002, and 70 percent in 2005. The proportion who talk with friends at least once a week about what they are reading has declined thus: 54 percent in 1992, 50 percent in 1994, 51 percent in 1998, 35 percent in 2002, and 37 percent in 2005. [National Center for Education Statistics, "National Assessment of Education Progress Data Explorer," incorporating data from reading assessments conducted in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2005.]

  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s long-term data (which are distinct from its main data set), the proportion of nine-year-olds who read for fun at least once a month fluctuated between 88 percent in 1984, 86 percent in 1999, and 87 percent in 2004. The proportion of thirteen-year-olds declined steadily, from 84 percent in 1984, to 81 percent in 1999, to 79 percent in 2004, as did the proportion of seventeen-year-olds, from 81 percent in 1984, to 72 percent in 1999, to 67 percent in 2004. The proportion of seventeen-year-olds who “never or hardly ever” read for fun rose from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. [Marianne Perie and Rebecca Moran, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (NCES 2005-464), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005.]

  • In 1970, there were 62,107,527 daily newspapers printed in the United States, or 0.30 per person (the U.S. population in 1970 was 205,052,174). In 2006, there were 52,329,230, or 0.17 papers per person (the U.S. population in 2006 was 299,398,484). [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2007, table 1114, "Daily and Sunday Newspapers—Number and Circulation, 1970–2005," quoting Editor and Publisher International Year Book. Editor and Publisher International Year Book 2007.]

  • Daily newspaper readership declined from 57 percent in 1999 to 52 percent in 2005, according to Scarborough Research. According to the Editor & Publisher International Year Book, total weekday newspaper circulation has declined steadily since 1990, as follows: 62.3 million in 1990, 58.2 million in 1995, 55.8 million in 2000, and 53.3 million in 2005. [The Project for Excellence in Journalism, State of the News Media 2007: An Annual Report on American Journalism].

  • In 2006, the Pew Research Center polled 3,204 adults for its biennial news consumption survey. In 1994, 49 percent of adults surveyed had read the newspaper the day before; in 2006, 43 percent had, including online readers. Newspaper readership has declined in every age category, and in all but the youngest age-cohort categories. The proportion of survey respondents who had read a magazine the day before declined from 33 percent in 1994 to 24 percent in 2006, but the number who had read a book unrelated to work or school rose, from 31 percent in 1994 to 38 percent in 2006. When people are asked why they don’t read newspapers, the fourth-most-popular answer is “Don’t like to read.” [The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership; Maturing Internet News Audience Broader Than Deep: 2006 News Consumption and Believability Study, 30 July 2006, pages 8, 20, 24.]

  • In a 2005 review of the sociological research about reading, three authors posited that a “reading class” will emerge. They noted that the National Endowment for the Arts (see above) and Dutch studies (see below) have found marked declines in reading. The authors have no idea whether book-reading will be a marker of prestige, as it was in the age before mass literacy, or merely “an increasingly arcane hobby.” [Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, "Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century," {institutional subscription required} Annual Review of Sociology 2005.]

  • Between 1955 and 1995, sociologists in the Netherlands studied leisure time by asking participants to fill out time-use diaries. The Dutch scholars found dramatic shifts in reading and television-watching habits, especially in the first two decades, which witnessed the introduction of television to the Netherlands. Reading on weekday evenings and weekends fell from 5.0 hours/week to 4.0 between 1955 and 1962, while television watching rose from 0.2 to 5.4. The rise of television and fall of reading continued in the next two decades, though at slower rates. Between 1975 and 1995, the total hours a week spent reading fell from 6.1 to 4.6 hours, while television watching rose from 10.2 to 12.4. (The Dutch methodology changed in 1975 from measuring just evenings and weekends, to measuring all hours of the week.) In 1955, reading took up 21 percent of people’s spare time; it took up only 9 percent in 1995. In the 1950s, men read more than women, but by the 1990s, women read more than men. [Wim Knulst and Gerbert Kraaykamp, "The Decline of Reading: Leisure Reading Trends in the Netherlands, 1955-1995," Netherlands' Journal of Social Sciences, 1997.]

Tomorrow (or thereabouts): Are Americans spending less money on reading?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?