Humanities Indicators
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Public Life  >  Humanistic Skills and Practices
 
Book Reading
(Updated May 2015)

The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts provides a rich set of data about the place of books in Americans’ lives, demonstrating how humanistic skills and interest extend beyond the formal education system.

Findings and Trends

  • 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 2012 (Indicator V-3a). In 1992, 61% of Americans reported that they had read a book for pleasure during the previous year, but in 2008 and 2012 only approximately 54% reported having done so.
  • From 1992 to 2012, the greatest decline in book-reading rates (of between 7 and 13 percentage points) occurred among adults under the age of 55. For Americans age 55 or older, book-reading rates either increased or declined by a much smaller amount.[1]
  • In spite of the overall decline in the percentage of Americans reading at least one book each year, anecdotal evidence suggests book clubs are currently a popular phenomenon, though data about Americans’ participation in them are scarce. The SPPA found that 3.6% of all adults in the United States participated in book clubs and reading groups in 2012.[2]
  • The U.S. book-reading rate among 25-to-64-year-olds in 2011/2012 (55%) was comparable to the rates in Poland and Lithuania but substantially lower than the rates in Austria, Finland, Germany, and Luxembourg (which were all above 72%; Indicator V-3b).[3]
  • The literature reading rate for the United States as a whole declined from 1982 to 2002, showed a small increase in 2008, and then fell back to near 2002 levels in 2012 (Indicator V-3c). As with book reading, the decline in literature reading over these decades was concentrated among younger people.
  • Age matters when it comes to reading rates—in two respects. First, earlier generations of Americans were more likely to engage with books than those born later (Indicator V-3d). Second, the data reveal a negative “age effect.” In four of the five cohorts examined, the percent reporting they had read literature in the previous year decreased as they got older.
  • In 2012, 56% percent of American women had read some literature in the past year, as compared to 37% of men (Indicator V-3e). The decline in literature reading from 2008 to 2012 was also more pronounced among men than women.
  • Americans with more education are more likely to read literature. In both 2008 and 2012 more than 60% of U.S. adults with a college degree read some literature within the previous year, as compared to less than 40% of those who graduated high school but did not go on to college. Over the four-year period, reading rates dropped for Americans at every level of educational attainment. Adults with only some high school education had the largest decline in reading rate, approximately a third.
V-3a: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Book Other Than for Work or School in the Previous 12 Months, by Age, 1992–2012
Source: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA; 1992, 2002, 2008, 2012). Estimates for 1992, 2002, and 2008 generated using the Cultural Policy and the Arts Data Archive’s online data analysis system. (The SPPA data have since migrated to the National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture.) Estimate for 2012 taken from the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis, How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2013), 27.
Related Indicators
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V-3b: International Comparison of Percentage of Adult Population Having Read at Least One Book in the Previous 12 Months, 2011/2012*

* “Adults” include people ages 25–64. Books read were for pleasure, not for work or school.

Source: European nations: 2012 Adult Education Survey (data provided upon request from Eurostat). United States: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2012); estimates generated using the National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture online data analysis system.

Related Indicators
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V-3c: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Novel, Short Story, Poem, or Play in the Previous 12 Months,* by Age, 1982–2012

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, Research Division Report no. 46 (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), xi; National Endowment for the Arts, 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, Research Report no. 49 (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009), 30 fig. 3-17; and National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research and Analysis, How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2013), 26.

Related Indicators
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V-3d: Rates of Literature Reading* among Americans 18 Years or Older, by Birth Cohort

* Other than for work or school.

** The first data point for this cohort is for those born 1958–1964.

† The first data point for this cohort is for those born 1968–1974.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, Research Division Report no. 46 (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), xi; National Endowment for the Arts, 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, Research Report no. 49 (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009), 30 fig. 3-17; and National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research and Analysis, How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2013), 26.

Related Indicators
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V-3e: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Novel, Short Story, Poem, or Play in the Previous 12 Months,* by Gender and by Education Level, 2008 and 2012

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research and Analysis, How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2013), 27.

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Endnotes

[1] The term “reading rate” used in this topic refers to the share of people of a given nationality who read at least one book or piece of literature (depending on the indicator) in the previous year for pleasure (rather than for work or school).
[2] National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research and Analysis, How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2013), 34.
[3] Data were not collected in 2011/2012 for all European Union countries. Thus, the U.S. adult book-reading rate cannot be compared to those of France, Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom, among others.