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Indicator V-3 Book Reading
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators, http://HumanitiesIndicators.org".
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Updated with 2008 data.

The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) provides the richest data available about the place of books in Americans’ lives. Conducted periodically by the National Endowment for the Arts, the survey generates data that permit an analysis of trends in book reading in the United States. These data can also be compared to similar data collected for the European Union (EU) and thereby provide some measure of U.S. book-reading rates relative to those of other Western nations. The SPPA is also a source for data on the reading of literature specifically.

According to the SPPA, the percentage of Americans who read at least one book of fiction or nonfiction in the previous 12 months (outside of work or school requirements) decreased from the early 1990s to 2008, the time span for which data of this kind are available (Figure V-3a). Whereas in 1992 61% of Americans reported having read a book for pleasure during the previous year, in 2008 54% reported having done so.

Figure V-3a, Full Size
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The greatest decline in reading rates, 10 percentage points (approximately a 15% drop), occurred among adults ages 18–54. For each of the groups of older Americans examined here, the decline was not statistically significant. Taken as a whole, older Americans (55+) were just as likely to be book readers in 2008 as they were in 1992.

In spite of the overall decline in book reading in the United States, anecdotal evidence suggests book clubs (discussion groups) are currently a popular phenomenon. Data measuring the actual extent of Americans’ participation in them are scarce, however, and not available through the SPPA. The one survey of a nationally representative sample of adults that investigates book club involvement, a 2005 study sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, found that 6% of American adults who read for pleasure and primarily in English, or 3.4% of all adults,1 participated in book clubs (full text of the study, entitled Poetry in America, can be found online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/initiative_poetryamerica.html).

Whether such clubs are widespread outside the United States is unclear. What is apparent from a comparison of SPPA data with those collected by the EU’s statistical agency, Eurostat, is that the nation’s book-reading rate in 2007/2008 among 25-to-64-year-olds was comparable to those of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus Figure V-3b. Regrettably, data were not collected in 2007/2008 for all EU countries; thus it is not possible to compare the U.S. adult book-reading rate to those of England, France, and Germany, as was possible in earlier years. (See the archived version of this indicator, which is based on data from 2001/2002 that include these nations. Note that the 2001/2002 estimates are for a somewhat different population than the 2007/2008 data: people ages 15 and older for the European nations and 18 and older for the United States.) But as was true toward the beginning of the decade, book reading in 2008 was more common in the United States than in such countries as Italy and Greece, but less so than in the Scandinavian nations of Finland and Sweden (the top-ranked country).

Figure V-3b, Full Size
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The SPPA includes data not only on book-reading trends but also on the reading of literature, defined as novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. SPPA reveals an increase from 2002 to 2008 in the literature reading rate, which had been declining steadily since 1982 (Figure V-3c). Literature reading increased for nearly all age groups over the course of the 2000s, but most substantially among 18-to-24-year-olds. This group’s literature reading rate rose by almost nine percentage points (approximately 21%).

Figure V-3c, Full Size
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The SPPA findings make clear that age matters when it comes to reading rates. Figure V-3d presents the SPPA data on literature reading in such a way as to make the relative importance of two types of age-related effects on reading rates more apparent. The first of these, the “cohort” effect, speaks to the influence of people’s generation on their tendency to read literature. The other effect is that of a person’s age at the time that individual is asked about his or her reading habits (the “age” effect). The figure reveals a cohort effect at work, with a smaller share of the youngest birth cohort examined here, born 1958–1967, reading literature than earlier cohorts at all stages of life. The figure also reveals a negative age effect, but not throughout the whole of people’s lives. In three of the four cohorts examined, people’s tendency to read literature levels off or increases somewhat once they reach a certain age. The age at which the decline in reading ceases is another key difference between birth cohorts: the younger the cohort, the younger the age at which the literature reading rate stabilizes or starts to rise.

Figure V-3d, Full Size
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Note
1 This percentage was calculated using the 2002 SPPA estimate of the proportion of Americans who read a book for pleasure in the previous year as a proxy for the percentage of Americans who read for pleasure (a reliable estimate of this group's size is not currently available).

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