The Humanities in American Life: Insights for Literature and Reading
- While 35% of adults often read fiction, a similar share (37%) rarely or never read works in the genre. A smaller share (26%) frequently read nonfiction.
- Fiction reading is only weakly associated with every other form of humanities activity in the survey except nonfiction reading.
- The survey found that 43% of American women read fiction often, while only 26% of men read in the genre at a similar rate.
- Americans with bachelor’s degrees are substantially more likely than those without a college education to read fiction often (46% compared to 25%).
- Almost two-thirds of humanities graduates read fiction often, compared to less than half of college graduates generally. (Less than one-third of engineering and computer science majors read fiction often.)
- Americans who are older, wealthier, or college-educated are more likely to often read both fiction and nonfiction works.
- Participation in reading-related activities outside the home—in the form of book clubs or literary events—had the lowest level of engagement in the survey. Only 5% of Americans often participate in these activities.
- Hispanics and Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to have frequently attended poetry/literature readings and other literary events as White Americans, and the youngest adults (ages 18 to 29) are more than twice as likely as those 45 and older.
- 84% of Americans have a favorable view of the term literature.
- Women are more likely than men to have a very favorable impression of literature, and the oldest Americans (age 60 and above) are substantially more likely than younger adults to hold a similar view.
- Americans with bachelor’s degrees are more likely than less educated Americans to have a very favorable impression of literature.
In Childhood and Education
A majority of Americans (53%) recall seeing their parents read often, but only 36% recall participating in reading activities with them that frequently (and one-third of Americans rarely or never read with their parents).
- While almost all Americans believe it important to teach reading to children, only 80% of Americans feel the same about teaching them literature.
- Almost 40% of Americans who believe literature should be taught in school think elementary school is too early for children to begin learning about the subject.
- 22% of Americans wish they had taken more literature courses in the course of their educations.
- Women are more likely than men, and Black and Hispanic Americans more likely than White Americans, to wish they had taken more literature courses.
- Americans who identify as politically liberal are more likely than moderates, conservatives, and the apolitical to wish they had studied more literature.
- Less than half of Americans often engage in concentrated reading for more than 20 minutes at a time while at work.
- There are large differences between those at the income and education poles in the use of reading skills on the job. There is a gap of more than 26 percentage points separating the highest and lowest income quartiles. The disparity is even larger—more than 32 percentage points—between Americans with college degrees and those with a high school education or less.
- Americans with a bachelor’s degree in engineering or computer science are more likely than both college graduates in general and humanities majors in particular to believe that reading and writing skills are necessary for their job.
- Among those who believe that reading and writing are necessary for their job, approximately one-third feel they had been limited at least a little bit in their career advancement by an inability to perform these skills.
These findings capture only a small slice of the larger study. Visit https://bit.ly/HumSurvey for the full report of the survey findings, including responses to questions about the humanities as a whole, visualizations comparing literature and reading to the other subjects, and a detailed summary of the responses to every question by gender, age, and other key demographics.
A Guide to Interpreting These Findings
The findings described here are based on a sample of Americans, weighted to produce estimates for the US adult population as a whole. The reported values are estimates and thus have a measure of error (also an estimate) associated with them.
By virtue of the error associated with each estimate (either for the entire adult population or a particular demographic group), observed differences between them may be due to the sample that happened to be drawn for this survey rather than a difference between the actual values in the adult population, which could be known only if a census were conducted. For this reason, only differences between estimates that were found to be statistically significant at the 5% level are noted.
Statistical significance gauges the reliability of an observed difference between two estimates. It indicates how certain one can be that the difference between the two values could actually be found in the adult population and is not due to chance (i.e., not due to the particular sample of adults that was surveyed as part of the study). If a difference between two groups (e.g., Asian and White Americans, or Asian Americans and the entire adult population) is significant at the 5% level, it means that if there really were really no difference between the two groups, a difference as large or larger than the one observed in our sample would be found only 5% of the time.