Monday, July 10, 2006

American reading habits

Sad statistics:

Only 32% of the U.S. population has ever been in a bookstore.

42% of U.S. college graduates never read another book.

58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school.

70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
And on an ironic note:
81% of the U.S. population feels "they have a book inside them."
Link » Facts and figures about publishing
from, via

comments: 15

Anonymous said...

Over 40% of statistics are wrong.

Michael Leddy said...

And another 17% are made up. : )

Crritic! said...

Those figures are alarming. Have they ever been corroborated?

In my country we're often told that more people go to art galleries than to sporting events. One look at the state of our national culture should give an indication of the truth of that claim.

Michael Leddy said...

I do wonder about some of those numbers, Sean, and there's no easy way to track them down, as the page itself acknowledges. Here are a couple that can be tracked down:

The National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk, on the decline of literary reading in the United States, has these figures:

56.6%: 2002 percentage of the U.S. adult population that read any book (down from 60.9% in 1992)

46.7%: 2002 percentage of the U.S. adult population that read literature (down from 54% in 1992)

These numbers don't jibe with the 58% non-book-reading figure in the post. I don't know how to sort out the differences, but with any survey along these lines, I would wonder how forthcoming respondents might be about their reading or non-reading habits (or literacy level).

There's also the Department of Education's 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which found that only 31% of American college graduates possessed high-level reading skills. That figure doesn't suggest sustained interest in reading.

The figure that really gave me pause was this one: "80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year." Perhaps the Harry Potter series has changed that? I'm not sure. According to a May 2006 New York Times article cited in Wikipedia, the most recent Harry Potter has sold 11 million copies in the U.S. A lot of books, sure, but still a small number in relation to the general population. The 2004 American Community Survey estimates almost 110 million households in the U.S.

Dale Michael Houstman said...

Statistics (as Mark Twain famously pointed out) are worse than "damned lies," and so one cannot perhaps sort the "truth" out here. Personal experience seems to verify that most people either do not read at all, or only read what is recommended by "experts" such as The New York Best Seller List. And I am not at all convinced all reading is equal, although some is probably better than none. But surely REAL reading is more than dragging your eyes over a certain number of words, and involves a perhaps less quantifiable spectrum of activities. A certain degree of interreaction between the text and the reader, which demands a more energetic thought process than merely enjoying the latest exploits of a Grisham lawyer. So even if the numbers proved a great upswing in books bought and (even!) read, I think this wouldn't clear up the question of literacy versus empty calories. The Potter books par exemple: I love children's literature, from Pooh to the Runaway Bunny, and have been particularly engaged by Edith Nesbit's marvelous stories, such as "The Enchanted Castle" which is (as a friend stated) the Mozart symphony of child lit. I read several of the Potter books and found them relatively empty of true wonderment, as if Rowling were trying all too hard to be important. And her books get larger and larger with no discernible growth in texture. Really, I think many modern writers create books as if they fully expected them to become movies, with the inevitable result of emphasis on "effects" and "big scenes." Quietude and charm is missing everywhere. This is parallel to what has happened in film, whose first generation of artists was raised on literature and plays, whose second generation was raised on films, and whose third generation appears mainly raised on videos and TV. This isn't about the specious separation between "high" and "low" culture, but a visible loss of what film and literature can be in and of themselves. And much of it seems related to the tumorous bloom of mere "Spectacle" in place of thought.

But - apart from all that yammer - I simply think American culture - at large - has fallen from a vast height. And numbers will not be able to measure the loss.

Genevieve said...

The phenomenal growth of the blogosphere has probably been produced in part by the many who "think they have a book inside them." Are they incubating a good book? In most cases, no, judging from their blogs.

Dale Michael Houstman said...

Judging from the entries in most "Best Seller" lists, I think the same conclusion could be drawn - and quartered.

As a surrealist writer, I firmly believe ANYONE can access their imagination and create art...BUT there is a lot working against this. I still recall vividly my high school English teacher's approach to any work of writing: to pick the "goose that laid the golden egg" apart in an attempt to reveal the "real" meaning behind the work - as if the words themselves, and all those trophes, and marvelous metaphors and such were really just in the way of a core of "meaning." The fact is, the majority of teachers are mediocre, some few are awful, and a lesser number are truly inspiring in the best sense of the word. I've been lucky enough to encounter one here and there in all phases of my education. And - the manner in which educational policy has been politicized of late, and test-passing emphasized over a joyous involvement in a subject - on both sides of the teacher's desk - I can't imagine this situation has improved.

And - yes oh yes- those many pug ugly blogs...

Devra said...

Based on my years working in bookstores, the bookstore statistics seem a tad optimistic. Alas.

Matt,Pleasantville NY said...

Ack. Thats is simply awful. but then again i dont know anyone my age who actualy enjoys reading. I read at least a book aday but of varying quality. you know its like television, if i cant find a good book i'll at least read A book.
As it happens I got a nice selection of Oz books for those days when escapeism is needed and i'm right now in the middle of a three book biography of Verdi. So i'm happy. but what i wonder is why people dislike reading. such a thoought is unfathomable to me yet i see it demonstated everyday

Dale Michael Houstman said...

Well - the truth is that - although reading is so enjoyable to many of us - it requires concentration and quietude, a certain putting aside of duties and demands that is becoming more and more a luxury. The alternative forms of "entertainment" (and reading isn't - at its best - solely entertainment) simply require less effort, and allow the participant (or Spectator) to forget the world. Reading (again - at its best) doesn't really allow one to escape the world: it actually requires us to engage with the world-at-large and make judgements, and watch as scenes of human tragedy and triumph unfold slowly, often with no easy answers or actual solutions. Many people want only solace, and the transitory challenge of a seemingly complex puzzle that is unraveled neatly after a short time. And a little sex.

When one considers that it wasn't that long ago that the vast majority of people were illiterate, and that books were a luxury for the few, and that rampant capitalism is quickly returning us to a form of feudalism, it is easy to comprehend that the ones who will run the world will not find it in their interest to encourage contemplation, and that time spent reading is time spent not working. In general, I think this is the future course, depressing as it might seem. Most of us will work longer hours for less recompense, our off-hours will be taken up with fatigue and the "arts of mere distraction" and reading will be confined mainly to rather empty entertainments.

Reading is a skill that - beyond knowing how to read instructions and orders - is not of particular interest to those who would own us.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I share the sense that the reader is an endangered species, struggling to persist in an environment that discourages the act of paying attention.

By chance, I came across a reference to an essay by George Steiner that's relevant to these concerns. I just added a post today with an excerpt, George Steiner on reading.

Dale Michael Houstman said...

Mr. Steiner's idea is interesting, although it does tend to predict a world in which reading is - once again - an elistist function. But - frankly - (and not to be too elitist myself) - the "true reader" has always been a rather rare animal. most people I know seem to engage in what one might cal "binge reading" which is a sort of cultural duty performed during the summer (those "unserious months") and meant more to fill a certain aesthetic quota, so you won't be left out of the party conversations. I really don't imagine most people experience the all encompassing "frisson" that comes from reading - and finishing - a great read; high culture or low. I experienced this on first getting through "David Copperfield" and I have now re-read it three times, with always the same pleasure. And what appears to be missing in action is the book of wit and charm, a text of smaller pleasures, such as Jerome's "Three Men In A Boat." Not a "Great Book" by any standard, but a immensely enjoyable one, with many delicately humorous moments. But- of course - this takes leisure, which is not condoned. Even our vacations are just another sort of job.

One could easily become depressed by contemplation of this situation (and a million similar ones in the modern world), but - as Theodore Sturgeon said - 95% of everything is crap. I don't know that it has really ever been any better, and - since e.e. cummings considered that "Most People" didn't exist, one should not spend an inordinate amount of time bemoaning the degradation of culture, and instead be happy that they themselves are still capable of exercising a fuller humanity. Until every book is converted into digital form, the records lost in a magnetic maelstrom, and the "useless" books burned, we still have a lot of reading to do.

And - in a very real way - the time to "pay attention" is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn't so long ago that Most People labored like donkeys, could not read, and had no time for much besides sleeping, eating, and dying. We have been living in a sort of bubble that is - it seems - if not bursting, at least leaking badly. Western culture had a good run, and even America the Brute once gave us the blues, jazz, rock and roll, comic books, a good handful or two of great books, and the movies. Hey days were had. If now so many have forgotten that a civilization is not remembered for its possessions and its military but for it culture, then we're in a pickle, but it's an old pickle, and one everyone has coming to them.

Diana said...

Interesting numbers, and they ring true to this small town bookstore employee. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a customer say, "I've lived here all my life and never been in here before today!" or "I haven't been in here since it moved." The store moved locations some 20-odd years ago.

In a town of 3000, with one main street of commerce, I find it incredulous that anyone would venture in from time to time due to lack of other options if nothing else.

Then again, I haven't ducked into the saddle shop yet...

Diana said...

Oops. Incredulous that anyone wouldn't venture in. Sorry.

Michael Leddy said...

Diana, your obervation probably holds true for libraries too -- in my little town, there are many people who never use the library.