Academy Article

New Evidence on Waning American Reading Habits


In releases posted this morning, we provide new indicators on Americans' dwindling engagement with books, the types of texts they are reading, changing attitudes about censorship, and student reading proficiency. Among the key findings:

Reading Habits

As of 2017, Americans spent an average of almost 17 minutes per day reading for personal interest (as compared to almost three hours watching television and 28 minutes playing games and using computers for leisure). The average is down about five minutes since 2003.

Younger Americans (ages 15 to 44) spent, on average, less than 10 minutes per day reading for personal interest.

The percentage of American adults who read at least one book for pleasure in the previous year fell to the lowest level on record in 2017 (below 53%). The greatest decline in book-reading rates occurred among adults under the age of 55.

Reading Topics

As of 2017, about 40% of American adults had read at least one type of humanistic text in the past year. The rates were similar for literature, history, biography, as well as religion and spirituality. Only 12% reported reading poetry (up modestly from the 2013 survey).

For most types of reading material (the exception being religious and spiritual texts), Americans with more formal education had higher reading rates. Over 55% of Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree had read a novel or short story in the past year, and approximately half had read a work of history. In comparison, less than 35% of Americans with only a high school education had read either type of work.

Other Findings on Reading

As of 2017, a majority of students at the 4th, 8th-, and 12th-grade levels failed to demonstrate proficiency in reading. Among 4th and 8th grade students, the improvement in student achievement from the late 1990s to 2017 was considerably greater in math than in reading. 

In 2016, Americans were less likely to support censorship of most types of texts than they were in the early 1970s, even though it was still endorsed by a nonnegligible minority of Americans. The greatest decline was in the share of Americans willing to suppress books advocating homosexuality.

In 1992, the Census Bureau reported 13,136 brick-and-mortar bookstores. By 2016, however, the number had fallen to less than half that figure, to an all-time low of 6,448 stores. Sales at those stores fell from a high of $2.20 billion (inflation-adjusted) in 2004 to $1.03 billion in 2018.

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Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend