One in Four Americans Didn’t Read a Book Last Year

But don’t mourn the death of the printed word just yet

It's alive! Germán Poo-Caamaño (Flickr/Creative Commons)

When’s the last time you read a book? If you’re like 27 percent of Americans, that question might be a headscratcher. That’s because just over one in four Americans surveyed in a new poll said that they didn’t read a single book within the last 12 months. The survey of American readers contains a few dismaying statistics—and a few surprises about the popularity of books and reading in an increasingly digital world.

When Pew Research surveyed 1,520 adults living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, they learned that the number of respondents that didn’t read a book within the last year did not budge from 2015 figures. However, adults do still read—and just how much might surprise you. Despite the unpopularity of books for some segments of the population, the mean number of books read in a year was 12 (the median was four).

But just who is a reader in the United States? It turns out that your age is a decent predictor of your likelihood to head to the library or bookshelf when you’re bored. Younger adults were slightly more likely to read for pleasure—83 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds compared with 78 percent ages 30-49, 81 percent ages 50-64 and 80 percent of people over 65 years of age.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those numbers differed based on educational attainment. Fifty-six percent of people who had not completed high school reported reading for pleasure, compared with 92 percent who had graduated from college. More men than women read for work or school, while more women read for pleasure than men. And everyone surveyed was more likely to read to research a certain topic of interest than respondents to a survey in 2011.

Responses about how readers get their books revealed gaps between white people and people of color. Sixteen percent of African-American respondents reported reading books on their smartphones—nearly twice the number of African-American respondents who read books using traditional computers and four times as many as African-Americans who use e-readers. Hispanic people surveyed were also more likely to read books using their phones. College graduates were much more likely than those who never went to college to read using e-readers or tablets than their phones.

Though it might be tempting to bemoan the number of Americans who don’t read books, the survey reveals something heartening, too: Print is alive and well. A full 65 percent of respondents read a print book within the last year. As WNYC’s On The Media reports, 17 million more print books were sold in 2015 than in 2014—571 million in all. And the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that sales in bookstores during the first half of 2016 were up 6.1 percent compared to the same period last year—a total of $5.44 billion worth of books sold. Reading may be changing, and not everyone is a reader, but the age of the book is anything but over.

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