Humanities Indicators
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Book Reading: Topics
(Updated July 2019)

Along with capturing trends in book reading, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) yields data about reading of specific types of humanities-related work, including fiction, poetry, history, biography, and books on religion and spirituality.

Findings and Trends

  • As of 2017, 44% of American adults had read some form of literature (defined as a novel, short story, poem, or play) for pleasure (not for work or school) in the previous 12 months (Indicator V-3c). This was the lowest rate recorded in surveys that extend back to 1982. As with the overall rate of book reading, the decline in literature reading over these decades was concentrated among younger adults; in this case, those under the age of 65.
  • Although literature reading in general has declined over the long term, poetry has seen an increase in readership in recent years (not pictured). Statistically significant increases were found for all age groups, but the increase was most dramatic among 18–24-year-olds, with the rate rising from 8.2% in 2012 to 17.5% in 2017.[1]
  • In both 1982 and 2017 women were more likely to be literature readers than men. Although the rate dropped for both groups over that time period, it declined less sharply for women, which widened the gap between the sexes (Indicator V-3d).
  • Americans with more formal education were more likely to be literature readers in both 1982 and 2017 than those with lower educational attainment, but over those 35 years the reading rate declined for all education groups. The greatest percentage drop was among those with some high school or a high school diploma, over 40%.
  • From 1982 to 2017, the share of Americans with bachelor’s degrees who had read even one work of literature (a novel, short story, poem, or play) in the past 12 months fell 22 percentage points (from 79.7 percent to 57.7 percent). Among American with advanced degrees, the share fell from 85 percent to 68.5 percent.
  • The 2017 SPPA included a new set of questions about a wider array of humanities literature, providing a window on Americans’ reading of history, biography, and works on religion and spirituality. The survey found that the share of Americans reading books of most types of reading material is similar, in the vicinity of 40% (Indicator 3e). Poetry is the exception, with a far smaller share, 12%.
  • The reading rates for most types of reading material examined here differed substantially by gender. For example, the share of women who had read a novel or short story in the past year was 50% and only 33% for men. Women were also more likely to have read a book on religion or spirituality than their male counterparts. Conversely, men were more likely to have read a history book than women (with a rate of 49% compared to 37%).
  • For most types of reading material, Americans with more formal education had higher reading rates. For example, in 2017, over 55% of Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree had read at least one novel or short story in the past year, and approximately half had read at least one work of history (Indicator 3f). In comparison, less than 35% of Americans with only a high school education had read either type of work. The exception to this relationship between book reading and educational attainment was religious and spiritual texts. Observed reading rates for this type of book were all in the 42–51% range, and not measurably different (meaning that the differences among them were not statistically significant at the 5% level).
  • The greater an American’s age, the more likely he or she was to have read a book on religion and spirituality (Indicator 3g). Americans 65 or older were also more likely to have read a history or biography (including memoirs) than their counterparts under the age of 35. Members of the youngest cohort (ages 18 to 24) were substantially more likely to have read poetry than any other age group.
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, 1982–2017

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

Related Indicators
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V-3d: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Novel, Short Story, Poem, or Play in the Previous 12 Months,* by Gender and Education Level, 1982–2017

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

Related Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-3d.xls../cmsData/ppt/V-3d_1.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-3d_1.pdf
V-3e: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Work of Fiction, Poetry, History, Biography, or Religion in the Previous 12 Months,* by Type of Text and Gender, 2017

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

Related Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-3e.xls../cmsData/ppt/V-3e_1.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-3e_1.pdf
V-3f: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Work of Fiction, Poetry, History, Biography, or Religion in the Previous 12 Months,* by Type of Text and Education Level, 2017

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

Related Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-3f.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/V-3f.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-3f.pdf
V-3g: Percentage of Americans 18 Years or Older Who Read a Work of Fiction, Poetry, History, Biography, or Religion in the Previous 12 Months,* by Type of Text and Age, 2017

* Other than for work or school.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

Related Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-3g.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/V-3g.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-3g.pdf

Endnotes

[1] The observed increase for each age group was statistically significant at the 5% level.