Reading in 2021: Who Still Reads? (Part 1 of 2)

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Do People Still Read in 2021?

Obviously, they can read. How else would they check social media? The question is, do people in America today still consistently dedicate time to reading books for pleasure or self-improvement? 

After a deep dive into U.S. government survey data (see far below), the short answer is yes, they do. 

See ‘ya next week, folks. 

Just kidding, there’s more. Despite much anecdotal doom-and-gloom about a perceived decline in literacy in the digital age, the portion of our society that reads books has hovered between 50-60% since the late 1980’s, even if it is trending slightly down.

Some details that struck me personally were how much we read, who reads, and why. At the end of the day, do any of these questions matter? 

How Much Do We Read? 

Most regular readers get in about half an hour each day. Despite the explosion of other leisure options in the interim, this is a decline of only about ~ 5 minutes on average since 2002. The average reader consumes 7 books annually, but this varies widely. About 40% of readers read fewer than 5 books per year, but about 20% fall into each of these buckets: 6-10 books, 10-20, and 20 books or more. 

Reading is the Orange one…

By any metric, men read about 10% less than women. There are times in our lives when most of us read less – in our 20’s and 30’s, and after 65. The former makes sense – those are the years of time-consuming tasks such as college, building a career, and raising young children. The latter surprised me. I would think that after retirement, your schedule opens up and you can read more but, perhaps, there comes a point when you’ve heard it all? Drop a comment if you have other theories.

Why Don’t We Read? 

On average, most people spend 5 hours per day on “leisure activities” – pollster’s term for any time we’re doing whatever the heck we want. We spend 2 hours and 45 minutes watching TV, 1 hour surfing the web, half an hour exercising, and half an hour reading. Interestingly, these numbers really don’t change from workdays to weekends. 

“Correlation vs Causation”

There’s a real temptation for readers to judge hypothetical non-readers for wasting their time. I can hear you screaming, “It’s the phones! How can books compete with screens?!?” Some of this is justified – does Average American really need 3 hours of TV every day? (You’ll never catch up with the ever-increasing mountain of content. Don’t try.) However, let me float this one by you:

…Reading is a privilege. 

While correlation is not causation, reading is positively related to: 

  • Education. The higher your education, the more likely you are to read for fun.
  • Income. Your likelihood of reading increases with your income. 
  • Stage of life. Parents of school-aged children have about 90 fewer minutes of general leisure time a day than those without. People working on advanced degrees tend to not read for pleasure. I know I didn’t. 

We control some factors that affect our reading habits – such as our free time – while others we don’t – such as education, income, and life stage. Perhaps the next time you meet a stranger who laughs and says they don’t read much, resist the smug smile in your heart. You never know what’s going on in their life. 

Does It Matter? 

This is where I leave you, reader. In an age when there are infinitely more efficient ways to consume stories and ingest information, does reading still matter? 

Check back next week to find out in part 2. 

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This Series Comes With A Bibliography:

“Book Reading Behavior”, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021) 

“Book Reading Topics”, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021)

“How Do We Read?” by the National Endowment for the Arts, James Murdoch, PhD, 2M Research, with: Mark Bauerlein, PhD; Marie Halverson; Natalie Morrissey; and Esther Galadima, March 2020, <> (accessed May 24, 2021)

“Publishing Trends in 7 Charts” by Paul Perry, Dec. 9, 2019 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021)

“Reading at Risk” by National Endowment for the Arts, 2002 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021) 

“Reading habits in the U.S. – Statistics & Facts” by Amy Watson, Jan 16, 2019 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021)

“Time spent in leisure and sports activities for the civilian population by selected characteristics, averages per day, 2019 annual averages”, Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 25, 2020, < > (Accessed May 24, 2021)

“Time Spent Reading”, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021) 

“Twilight of the Books” by Caleb Crain, The New Yorker, Dec. 24, 2007 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021)

“Who Doesn’t Read Books In America” by BY Andrew Perrin, Sept. 26, 2019 <> (Accessed May 24, 2021)

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