On the non-reading of books by Americans

I’ve long heard the claim that the average American reads less than one book a year, but a Pew Poll released last November shows that that’s not accurate—in two ways. First, as I note below, the concept of “books read by the average American” isn’t accurate, as the concept of “the average American” is meaningless on this issue. More important, that figure is in fact an underestimate, for 74% of American have read at least one book in the year preceding the survey, and the median value among Americans is four books per year (the median is the number of books read that is exceeded by half the population, and not achieved by the other half; in other words, it’s the number of books read that divides the population into equal moieties). The mean, as I show below, is much higher than that.

The full report (based on phone surveys of 1,520 adults age 18 or over) is here, but the general results are shown in the following figure:

ft_16-11-23_readbookwhohasnt

The data above are for at least one book, but the full report gives the median values:

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-8-48-29-am

In the Appendix you can see that the mean (average) number of books is much higher than the median, which means one thing: a few Americans read a lot of books while many more American read few books. The disparity is large, with the mean being roughly three times higher than the median:

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-9-01-06-am

The upshot:

  • Women read more than men
  • Blacks and Hispanics read less than non-Hispanic whites
  • Young people read more than older people (I suspect that some of this reading is assigned for school)
  • As expected, the amount of reading goes up with level of education, as it does with income (they did not, as far as I know, remove the cross-correlation of these factors, or with ethnicity and education)
  • Urban dwellers are more likely to have read at least one book, but don’t differ from the suburban or rural population in the median number of books read.

Finally, despite the wider availability of e-books and audiobooks in recent years, American’s still prefer to read paper books than the other two types, though the number who have read e-books and audiobooks has grown in the past five years.  But the number who have read at least one book in paper, or in any format, has remained fairly constant.

pi_2016-09-01_book-reading_0-01

I don’t have much to say about that; four books a year seems like a decent amount, though I’m sure many of us read a lot more than that.

In the end, the question, “how many books does the average American read” can’t be answered meaningfully because “the average American”, whoever that is, is not at issue. One meaningful answer is this: the average number of books read by an American is 12. But even that misses a lot of the information, for given the skew in the number of books read per year, which must look something like what’s below, another important result is this: far more than half of all Americans read fewer than 12 books.

skew_3

In a “right skewed” distribution, like this, the mean exceeds the median. This would be the kind of plot you’d get if you put “number of books read” on the X-axis and “number of Americans reading each number of books” on the Y-axis

h/t: Grania

132 Comments

  1. George
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t think those numbers are at all accurate. I assume that those numbers are self reported. I think the mode (most common value) for number of books read is zero. The median is probably one.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Yes, they are self reported so one has to take them with a grain of salt. But of course then why has to wonder why different groups of people self report differently.

      • George
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        I think people are too embarrassed to say they have read no books or just one book in the past year. Reading is one of those things that demonstrates that you are a good, engaged citizen.

        Giving Trump credit for having done some of the required reading he did as part of the formal education process, I think he is listed as the author (not actually having written the books) on more books than he has read since age 22. I believe that Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal, has said something like that about Trump.

        • Posted February 15, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

          There was an old joke about a man who went to a writer’s club and said he wanted to be a writer. Because he didn’t look like a person able to read, the club members started asking him whether he had read this or that famous author. The visitor replied: “You have misunderstood me. I want to become a writer, not a reader.”

        • Henry Fitzgerald
          Posted February 16, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

          Self reports could of course be too high for this reason, but some might also be too low. Someone might well read a book in February and then forget having done so by December.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Yes, this is a problem that I’ve pounded away at for awhile now in my own research. Any data that is collected as self-reported by the sample respondents is inherently subject to all kinds of biases. And yet survey analysts still treat the data at face-value, as if it is free of measurement error. This has the effect of sometimes grossly underestimating the uncertainty of their estimates and analyses.

      • TJR
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        Over here we call it The Shy Tory Effect.

        Shy Brexiteer, Shy Trumpist etc.

      • Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        I just wish the media (and to lesser extent the official statistical agencies, pollers, etc.) would report it correctly. Think of:

        25% of Canadians smoke.
        vs.
        25% of Canadians say they smoked at least one tobacco cigarette in the last week.

        (And with the confidence intervals, too!)

        • Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

          Yes! There is a huge difference between those two example statements. I often come down on the media for not taking the time to understand the science and/or statistics properly before communicating it to the general public, but in this case, I mostly blame the analysts. The statistical tools and methodologies used simply do not properly account for the measurement error induced by the self-reporting property of the data. Yet, there are ways to deal with this! But methodological traditions are hard to break, unfortunately.

          • Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

            Unfortunately, similar inaccurate reporting takes place on medical records. The cigarette example happened to my daughter.

      • Filippo
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        I’m reminded of self-reporting the daily/weekly number of adult beverages.

        • Zado
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

          If only they would amend the clinical definition of “alcoholic,” I’m sure more people would be more forthright.

    • Taz
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Wouldn’t it be possible to compare the total self-reported against the total sold (perhaps over an extended period) and come to some sort of conclusion about the amount over-reported?

      • George
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        You would have to add in circulation from libraries – which is still amazingly high. And purchasing a book does not correspond to reading it. I buy books and do not get around to reading them for a while – sometimes years. I like to have the book there for when I want it. And I prefer printed books.

      • Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        You might get objective data from store loyalty cards.

        Of course, that would just give you data on people who regularly buy at least some books and there’s no guarantee those books didn’t join the unread pile along with James Joyce’s Ulysses, A Brief History of Time and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I would guess that 80% of all books read in the US are romance novels.

    I would also guess that non-fiction books that educate makes up less than 2% of the books read.

    • Martin X
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      That was going to be my comment. I don’t think fiction books are totally useless as education, but have a fraction of the value of non-fiction books.

      • Taz
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        That’s a pretty big generalization. How many text books are more valuable to read than Huckleberry Finn or 1984?

        • Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

          Dystopias are booming right now. Brave New World, It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale

          Whatever charges you can throw at Trump he’s got people reading again!

          • allison
            Posted February 15, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            Probably not those who voted for him, though…

        • Martin X
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          “How many text books are more valuable to read than Huckleberry Finn or 1984?”

          Textbooks? Probably most of them.

          • Posted February 16, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            I dunno: think of yet another dreary introductory book in a field with dozens of texts (calculus, psychology, whatever).

            You’d be comparing those against classic literature. Better comparison, where I do agree there is a case that the textbook has greater over all value would be to “random novel” vs. “random textbook” (especially a relatively introductory one).

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez < than Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos ?

        • Mark R.
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          Exactly!

        • Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          To be honest, I didn’t like the “100 years”. Particularly the ending where they let the poor baby with the tail die.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        You could read your way from one end of the nonfiction bestseller list to the other and never come upon anything like Crime and Punishment or Middlemarch or Gatsby.

        So I’ma hafta demur on that one.

        • Martin X
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          “list to the other and never come upon anything like Crime and Punishment or Middlemarch or Gatsby.”

          But not educational. “Crime and Punishment” brought tears to my eyes, but I learned almost nothing from it, other than a bit about Russian society.

          A basic introductory physics or European history book contains more useful knowledge than any of these.

          • Grania Spingies
            Posted February 16, 2017 at 7:32 am | Permalink

            Surely reading for pleasure is allowed? We’re not against enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake. The pursuit of knowledge doesn’t need to be fetishized.

            When I die, I hope I will have enjoyed my life as much as I have learned things. Neither is going to matter one bit 2 seconds after I shuffle off this mortal coil, after all.

          • darrelle
            Posted February 16, 2017 at 9:08 am | Permalink

            Non-fiction book lists are also filled with knowledge filled titles like Ann Coulter’s In Trump We Trust, Deepak Chopra’s Book Of Secrets, David Klinghoffer’s The Discovery Of God, Stephen Meyer’s Signature In The Cell and so on . . .

            Good examples of writing of any kind are good reading material. There is an enormous amount of useful knowledge to be had from reading fiction. Ranging from aesthetics, to communication, to ideas & ways of thinking, to culture and much more. I am really surprised to hear anyone say that fiction can not be educational. There is more to human existence than an accurate understanding of reality as revealed by the physical sciences. Even there a broader education including fiction is without doubt a benefit.

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    What was it they say about statistics? They can be made to show just about anything. I am sure if I called and it happened to be a literature teacher in Peoria, this person may have read 5 books just last month. The next person I called was a plumber in Des Moines and he hasn’t picked up a book, other than a manual on toilets for three years. The other issue might be the quality of the reading. There are some who read tons of romance novels. Then there are some who read nothing but quality non-fiction. So what is read is also of some importance in the survey.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . if I called and it happened to be a literature teacher in Peoria, this person may have read 5 books just last month.”

      As relief from the numbing task of reading and grading student papers, written by students who are not always in the mood to do the heavy cognitive lifting required to write quality prose, eh?

      I speculate that not a few literature teachers might reasonably seek relief from reading by pursuing some non-reading, hands-on activity/craft.

      I admire grades 6-12 language arts teachers for the pedagogical burdens they take on. As a student sometimes I would rather have takin’ a whoopin’ then to have to write a paper or be tested on some classic fiction work being “taught.” I would have rather been allowed to read something of my own volition then to have the millstone of a paper/test hung around my neck.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        You could be right. I just assume the lit teacher would consume many more books than the plumber but that is stereotyping in spades.

  4. Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Muddying matters even farther, how are we to count the reading of blogs and online articles? I find that I do a tremendous amount of reading once I add up all my sources. I do read books as well. By the way, this as not to invalidate your article, I found it interesting and I think you are right about about the numbers found and analyzed.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Why do dead trees count more than electrons?

      Another thing to consider is that the raw amount of reading is not particularly informative. My mom is a RWNJ who’s hopelessly ignorant on just about any important issue, but she reads quite a bit. O’Reilly’s A Bold, Fresh, Piece of Humanity, for instance.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

        Sadly there are some people we wish wouldn’t read at all!

      • Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        Exactly! The quality of what a person is reading matters a great deal. Another example would be reading blogs. Some are pure fluff, others well researched and thought provoking.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted February 16, 2017 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      I probably spend an hour or two every day just reading through this website, comments, and the links provided by others. I certainly consider it time well spent, and have learned an immense amount from it. At that rate I could probably read a book a week.

      As an aside, I have just finished reading The Emperor of All Maladies, as a result of recommendations here, and can now thoroughly recommend it myself.

  5. Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    As expected, the amount of reading goes up with level of education, as it does with income (they did not, as far as I know, remove the cross-correlation of these factors, or with ethnicity and education)

    Am I misreading the first graph? That appears to show that twice as many people earning < 30k read books as those earning 75k+

  6. Eric Grobler
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    “Women read more than men”
    Do romance novels count?

    I would be more interested in what kind of books people read.

    Perhaps Amazon has interesting data.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Bible?

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      ‘Romance’ seems to have blurred into S&M.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I agree. I have a feeling that if you exclude comic books and the like from the category of books the numbers would drop alot.

      I’m not sure if book purchases would be helpful. IIRC, A Brief History of Time was on the best seller list for more than a year but it was one of the most unread books in history. People just liked to have it on their coffee table.

      If I did the poll, for the book to count the respondent would have to give the title and a brief summary.

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        I remember as a student I drove around with a Franz Kafka novel to impress a girl but I never finished it!

        • Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          How much you enjoy Kafka often depends on the translation.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          Josef K. gets stabbed in the heart “like a dog,” in case you’re still wondering how the Kafka book turned out.

          Hope you at least reached the denouement stage with the woman.

          • Eric Grobler
            Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

            I think the book was The Castle – how did that end?

            • Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

              After wasting my time with a short story about a man who one morning woke up metamorphosed into a giant cockroach, I made a vow never again to try Kafka.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted February 15, 2017 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

                Herr Kafka isn’t for everyone. But those of us who like him, like him a lot.

              • barn owl
                Posted February 15, 2017 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

                The jam band Widespread Panic has a song, Imitation Leather Shoes that makes reference to The Metamorphosis:

                “My little brother is an insect
                He likes to crawl around his room
                His mother shudders at the sight of him
                His pappy is a businessman

                Every move he makes is torture
                He cannot speak words anymore
                Our sister likes to flip him on his back
                And watch little brother squirm”

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      It looks like mystery, thriller, and crime is the leading genre and then history and biographies/memoirs.

  7. Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  8. nickswearsky
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I would not assume that younger folks read more than older because some of the reading is assigned in school. My experience is that younger (kids, teens) are drawn to books. My nieces and nephews were avid, enthusiastic readers, as were their peers even in Summer. During school year, they finished their homework (assigned reading) and would pick up a book. Harry Potter and the like did a lot for that.

  9. TJR
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    It’s a shame the histogram isn’t shown, I would expect it to be much more skewed than the example graph at the bottom.

    As noted above, the mode is almost certainly zero, and there will be a massively long tail to the right, largely consisting of people who work in publishing.

    I’d expect it to look like a power law distribution.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      …the mode is almost certainly zero…

      That’s a plausible speculation. Before retiring, I probably read 1 – 2 books a week; now the figure is 3+ a week. With a mean of 12, there are potentially 3 – 12+ complete non-book-readers for one of me.

      Of course, there are many other possible calculations, but as with any other interest, people who are hooked will do a lot, people who aren’t, won’t do any.

  10. Barry Lyons
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Just so that I can show off, here’s a list of books that I’ve read so far in 2017:

    “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shtenygart (this was a second read)

    “Letters to a Young Contrarian” by Christopher Hitchens

    “The Silver Swan” by Benjamin Black

    “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth (a second read; I began this last night)

    I’m also smack in the middle of Michael Shermer’s “The Moral Arc” (I usually like to have two books going at once: a novel and a work of nonfiction.)

    Next up on the novel front (after Roth): “I the Supreme” by Augusto Roa Bastos (I’ve been meaning to read this for many years. Now that we have an authoritarian president (so-called) in office, now’s the time.)

    And there you have it.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      The Plot Against America has also benefited from a Trump Bump.

      I’m rereading H G Wells because he’s just come out of copyright and there are new editions with new intros. Also a book on Brainwashing and Len Deighton’s SS-GB before the BBC adaptation starts. Some ghost stories because they are ideally suited for cold dark nights.

      • bric
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        SS-GB is very good if I remember correctly, also recommend Robert Harris’ Fatherland

  11. Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    So, next question: *what* books are Americans (and everyone else) reading, and how do they choose?

  12. sshort
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I worked in a chain bookstore in the bible belt and the largest “island” by a factor of three or more had bibles of every shape and size and finish… zippered, leather, gilt-edged, over-sized, large-print, young readers… on and on. All tax-free, of course.

    Then we had large sections of romance novels, fantasy and fiction, pop-culture, self-help, cooking and home. A small section on classics and philosophy. And you had to tax the Koran, the Gita, Upanishads, etc.

    And I worked at a bookstore in a large urban center with the highest volume of readership per capita in the country. We had literature from all over the world, well-bought and stocked non-fiction sections. Policy books and journals. No romance books. No bibles. very small psychology and business sections.

    The gulf… it is deep and wide out there.

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      The bibles were tax-free but the korans weren’t? Wow. And this was a matter of law or was the bookstore just eating the tax?

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted February 16, 2017 at 5:38 am | Permalink

        Is that not a breach of the first amendment?

        • Posted February 16, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          That’s what I thought as well, but the usual (bogus) “States rights!” justification also came to mind.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      “bibles of every shape and size and finish… zippered, leather, gilt-edged, over-sized, large-print, young readers… on and on”

      Well, when the content of them all is exactly the same crap, word for word, I guess all ya can do is try and make changes in the packaging…

      cr

  13. veroxitatis
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    All very interesting but what I should like to know is the number of books read by the Trump in his lifetime and whether any were of literary merit.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      I would be surprised if he has even read his own ghostwritten books.

    • Beth Purkhiser
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard it’s a grand total of one: Mein Kampf.

      • veroxitatis
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Well, it certainly isn’t Machiavelli’s The Prince or he wouldn’t be making such a mess of things. He would have assembled a better team and found an effective fishing line to play Putin rather than succumb to his flattery.

        • Filippo
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          I read today that Andrew Pudzer – Ah mean Puzder – has withdrawn his nomination as Secretary of Labor. I was looking forward to his skewering – Ah mean, hearing. Not fair! Ah’m tellin’!

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

          Machiavelli? I doubt it. (a), there’s no way he could spell it, and (b) do you think the Drumpf would take any advice from a spaghetti-munching Dago?

          cr

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        He hasn’t read it, but “people tell [him] all the time” that it’s fantastic, a yooge bestseller, the second greatest book of all time after Art of the Deal — and the bible, of course, which he also hasn’t read, but has heard is tremendous.

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          You insight is just wonderful and fantastic.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 16, 2017 at 12:29 am | Permalink

          And he’s heard that Hitler’s an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.

          • Richard
            Posted February 16, 2017 at 5:38 am | Permalink

            And of course Mussolini made the trains run on time… but he was one of dem damn’ furriners!

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 17, 2017 at 1:58 am | Permalink

              😀

              (And Richard, I hope you and other readers here noticed that my wording was stolen from Trump’s remarks about Frederick Douglass. I may have been too subtle, in which case the remark just makes me look dumb!) (Perhaps I should say, dumber.)

      • Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think so. Mein Kampf is fairly thick and difficult to read. (I am struggling with it right now, so I know it first-hand.)

  14. allison
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I do wonder what all those people are doing with their free time (watching television, I suppose?), as reading is my primary leisure activity. I finished 46 books in 2016 and eleven thus far this year. I’ve got three going simultaneously at the moment.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Fiction or non-fiction?

      • allison
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        Roughly 80% fiction / 20% nonfiction

      • Filippo
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Would you reasonably say that there are more people who view themselves competent to write fiction than there are competent to write non-fiction?

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I do the Goodreads challenge. My target is usually 50 per year. I’m not a fast reader but I am a persistent reader and I get the train to work so that’s a guaranteed hour per day without other distractions.

      When I was a student I’d read three or four a week and still manage to study and have a social life. I don’t know how I did it.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        For someone who reads so much — what kinds? That is about one a week, amazing.

      • Newish Gnu
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        I’ve read about 50/year for most of my adult life. Big reader as a kid too. My job over the last 15 years has involved a fair amount of car time so audio books are about half of it.

        When I first started on audio books, I found it hard to follow non-fiction. Over time, however, that changed and now I mostly listen to non-fiction and actually read fiction. Listening to fiction takes too long.

        Recommendation: the Harry Potter books are much better listened to than read.

  15. Beth Purkhiser
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I started keeping track of the books I read each year, and since I started doing that, the limited number of books I’ll be able to read before I die became the most disturbing aspect of mortality to me. I guess this means we should choose wisely! 😛

    • Kevin
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      You can do the same with coffee filters, as an example. You can actually buy all the coffee filters you will need for the rest of your life (assume you live to be 100) and put them in a box and it is depressing.

      • Richard
        Posted February 16, 2017 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        The average life-span is less than four thousand weeks. Very sobering.

        Last night I found myself thinking “Do I really want to spend the best part of a week watching that DVD box-set (5 seasons, 110 episodes, over 100 hours) when I probably have only a thousand weeks or less to go?”.

    • David Coxill
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I started doing that in 1998 ,the most books i have read in one month is 65 ,nearly 20 years ago .Most were fiction .
      Since then i average about 24 books a year ,mainly non fiction.Last year i started being a servant to cats and i only managed to read 10 books ,every time i settle down with a book a cat comes and wants attention.

      • David Coxill
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        PS ,yes it does depress me that i won’t be able to read all the books i want to .
        Anybody out there read “Uncollected Works ” by Lin Carter ,take too long to explain what it is about .
        It is in a collection of his short stories called “Beyond the gates of dreams ”
        Give you a clue ,50 million Monkeys and Shakespeare .

    • Mary Sheumaker
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      My late father used to say he wouldn’t be dying for awhile because [gestures at books stacked randomly in office] look at all these books he had yet to read. Didn’t work out so well for him, but he would’ve loved this comment.

      • Filippo
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        “A man’s reach [toward his bookshelf] should exceed his grasp. Else, what’s a Heaven for?”

        – Robert Browning

  16. Andrew
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m no mathematician, but how can you have a median of 0 if the mean is positive (stats for less than HS)?

    Even if there were only two events (zero and the mean of 3), I was always told that the median of an even number of event classes is the arithmetic mean of the middle 2 events.

    • TJR
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      If over half of people read no books then the median is zero.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Suppose you have a sample size of five and the responses for the number of books read in the past year are: 0, 5, 0, 0, 10. The median number of books read would be 0 (the middle value in the distribution of 0, 0, 0, 5, 10). The mean number of books read would be 3 (total number of books read divided by the number of respondents).

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Here’s one example: suppose we ask 10 people how many books they read last year. 7 respond with 0 books, and the other 3 respond with 3 books. Then the median is 0 (50% of the data fall below 0), but the mean is positive (0.9 books).

      Playing with the numbers, you can have a negative median with a positive mean, or vice-versa. Basically, anything goes as long as your data are skewed enough.

    • Andrew
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Gotcha. Thanks for the examples.

  17. Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m a writer, so this topic is dear to my heart. A wonderful passage about Americans reading (or not reading) books comes from one of my favorite writers, Randall Jarrell, in his book Poetry and the Age. It’s worth sharing:

    “One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader–non-reader, rather; one man out of every two–and I reflect, with shame: ‘Our poems are too hard for him.’ But so, too, are Treasure Island, pornographic novels–any book, whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have, in 77 million out of 166 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream-situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, ‘Why don’t you read books?’–and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time: ‘Huh?’”

    • Filippo
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time: ‘Huh?’”
      Or, “Whut?”

    • Zado
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of Bill Hicks’ bit about a Waffle House waitress asking him, “Wha’ch-you readin’ for?”

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 16, 2017 at 12:35 am | Permalink

      Let’s not knock Treasure Island.

      😀

    • David Coxill
      Posted February 16, 2017 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Randall Jarrell ,he wrote the death of the ball turret gunner ,very short poem .
      I did read somewhere that it is really about abortion ,don’t know how they came to that conclusion .

  18. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    … he concept of “the average American” is meaningless on this issue.

    According to a recent study, the “average American” has one testicle.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      They identify with Hitler?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      And half a ….you know.

  19. Kevin
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I contend that many humans are equipped with audible input of much greater comprehension that reading.

    I predict that audible books will become more popular.

    We were listening to one another for a lot longer than we read.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      We talk to each other more than we read.

      I don’t think we listen half as much.

    • Jeremy Tarone
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      When I went to school I would frequently relax, zone out, defocus my eyes and listen to the teacher drone on. They used to call on me and ask me to repeat them (thinking I wasn’t paying attention), and I never had a problem repeating exactly what they had said, many long sentences.

      I couldn’t do it in a noisy classroom. On the other hand, I had no problem remembering what I read either, but usually only in general concepts. I couldn’t recall exactly what I read word for word, but I could read much faster than what any teacher could speak, which is why I started zoning out in class, I’d read the entire chapter at the start of class, or the entire textbook in the first few days of school.

      That’s the problem with audio over reading, it’s much slower.

      On the other hand I can listen to an audio book while doing other things, like walking the dog, washing dishes, making dinner or yard work.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 16, 2017 at 12:38 am | Permalink

        “That’s the problem with audio over reading, it’s much slower.”

        Yes!

        Same reason I hate clicking on what sounds like an interesting article or interview or whatever and finding out it’s a vid.

  20. Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Interesting.

    On Wed, Feb 15, 2017 at 12:01 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “I’ve long heard the claim that the average > American reads less than one book a year, but a Pew Poll released > last November shows that that’s not accurate—in two ways. First, as I note > below, the concept of “books read by the average American” isn’t accura” >

  21. James Flynn
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I read fifty books a year and I consider myself an idiot. Wait a minute; did I just fall for the anecdotal experience fallacy?

  22. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    If listening to audiobooks counts as “reading a book in any format”, then a lot of people read a lot of TV.

    This is not entirely snark. Seems to me that a six-part PBS miniseries of (say) Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall ought to count the same as an audiobook of it.

    • Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Its a good adaptation (of two long books!) but you lose the narrative voice, internal monologues, etc.

  23. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    As I get older I experience eyestrain more from reading. I have switched largely to audiobooks for fiction and some non-fiction (Why Evolution is True, Fact Vs Faith, The Greatest Story Ever Told so Far), but many other non-fiction books I purchase in paper. Astronomy, machine shop books, microscope usage, books on economics, gardening and other eclectic interests. I also have a fondness for very large printed atlases.

    Books that I use for reference I prefer in both paper and searchable PDFs or other ebook formats that I can easily search with my computer.

  24. Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    In addition to the issues already mentioned above – self-reporting might be an overestimate, book does not equal book, and what about non-book reading – I would mention another technical problem of the survey.

    I have just thought what I would answer if I got such a call right now. Really I have no idea how many books I read over the last twelve months. It may be easy if it is exactly one, but surely not many people who read a couple of books per year will make a tick on a notepad on the fridge every time they finish one?

    So I’d expect the error bars on this to be humongous, as in “the result is 4 (+/- 12)”, or in other words: not very meaningful.

  25. Posted February 15, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    My parents could not afford to buy books for me as a child, but my Mom took my brother and me to the library every two weeks where we borrowed 8 books each. I read my books, he read his, and then we traded. We read through everything we were interested in that the children’s section had before we were considered mature enough to read adult books. So, we were given special dispensation.

    Ever since, I have averaged 6 or 7 books a week, more fiction than non-fiction, but a fair proportion of non-fiction. I’ve read many of the classics, mythology (Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic, Native American,) fairy tales, history, comparative religions, social sciences,etc. As I’ve gotten older, I read more secular works by Hitchens, Dawkins, Shermer, Harris, Dennett, et al. I read science of the type Frans DeWaal writes (not being competent at hard sciences and mathematics, more’s the pity). I also read 8 to 10 magazines a month and, on the internet, read WEIT fathfully, plus anything else that captures my interest. I have a Kindle and also still buy hardback and paperback books (more often used than not). I’ve pretty much given up on print newspapers and read news online at a variety of sources I still consider relatively trustworthy.

    When I die, it is likely to be under an avalanche of books in my house. If so, I will die happy.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      I discovered reading early, I think. I became a compulsive reader – books, but also instruction manuals, corn flakes packets, anything with writing on it – till I made a policy decision: if I have time to read junk, I have time to pick up a proper book.

      I have an (estimated) 1500 books in my ‘den’ (OK, junkroom) downstairs. Mostly railways (I’m a nut), science/engineering, some travel books, science fiction and some adventure/spy fiction though I’m very arbitrarily choosy about which fiction authors I’ll read. They have to have a way with words that appeals to me.

      cr

  26. grasshopper
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    +C. S. Lewis said “A book not worth reading twice isn’t worth reading once.”

    That sounds like a parodox until you realize it’s just a deepity.

    When I was young and cashed up from my first job I would buy books on the basis on how many pages per dollar I would get. I had a lot of time to kill whilst waiting for buses and trams travelling to and from work. “Johnathan Livingston Seagull” was a rare exception to my usual practise, and I have always regretted it.

    “The Sirens Of Titan”, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is not a long novel, and when I close the book after (re)reading it I continue to be amazed at how much was in there compared to how small the book is.

    On the other hand, I always think the bible should be about a billion times bigger than it is if it really contained sufficient wisdom for humanity.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      ‘+C. S. Lewis said “A book not worth reading twice isn’t worth reading once.”‘

      I suspect that not a few of us here have read Hitch’s “god Is Not Great” more than once.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      I agree with C S Lewis on that. (Or the inverse corollary – if it’s worth reading once it’s worth reading again.) If I read a book once that I really like, I try to buy a copy for my collection.

      cr

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I would assume (without having looked at any data!) that if one did a plot of [number of individuals] vs [number of books read] there would be a two-humped curve. There would be a huge hump at the left-hand end (i.e. approximately zero books read) and a smaller but distinct peak at the right-hand end [lots of books] and a gap in the middle.

    Which is to say, I’m dividing the population into two groups – people-who-read-books and people-who-don’t-read-books.

    (Reading the Bible/Koran/Talmud/other holy nonsense over and over doesn’t count)

    People who can read but have a 5-minute attention span now have an alternative to books anyway, the Internet and (urgh!) ‘social media’.

    cr\

  28. rickflick
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Years ago a woman in my office mentioned that she lead a reading group who read and discuss book. My ears perked up. Hmmm, I said. Maybe I could get in on it…

    She looked at me and added Well, it’s mostly all women and the books might not interest you that much.

    I felt I understood her to mean they read romance, etc. and that I would have expected something else. She was right.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Yes, romancing the airplane probably wouldn’t make the club. And by the way, what do you think about the recent Harrison Ford mishap? Just one of those things maybe, but at his age it always leaves a doubt. I’m thinking he should move on to smaller airports at least, where things are a bit simpler.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 15, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Harrison has had a number of mishaps. Remember a few years ago he crashed into a golf course – engine trouble. These things can happen to anyone, but if you see a pattern, it might be time to consider backing off a bit. I have done that myself. when I learned to fly at 55 I felt confident after several hundred hours of experience. At 70 now, I don’t have the reflexes and agility I had then so I fly differently. Less stress, smaller goals. Lower risk.

        • Randy schenck
          Posted February 15, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          Yes, certainly you had a late start, but the fact that you see your limits at 70 is good. I, on the other hand soloed at 17 but then never stayed with it for long. My dad, a life long flyer also knew when to slow down and then stop. His father, not so much and he had a bit of a wreck at about 75 or so. I remember gramps knew when to stop taking me and would say, you better go with your dad, but he didn’t know it was time for him to give it up.

          Harrison is about 76 and I just wonder if he should still be operating at such an airport as that. So much crap on the radio and very different speeds all around you.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 16, 2017 at 12:50 am | Permalink

          “…when I learned to fly at 55…”

          What an unusual thing to take up at that age! (Just for the record, it’s an age I’ve looked back on for over a decade, so it’s not like I think 55 is fogey-dom or anything.) Would that have been a mid-life crisis? Or perhaps just something you finally had to time to pursue? Pardon my nosiness…

          • rickflick
            Posted February 16, 2017 at 4:20 am | Permalink

            Once my daughter was away from home, my wife and I began to investigate some fun activities. Scuba diving was one, which took up many places including the Caribbean islands. On one dive trip, we flew between islands with a small island hopping airline. My wife was thrilled when we flew in an island hopper low between islands in the Caribbean. We looked down on sandy beaches and corral reefs. A fellow passenger said he flew himself. My wife decided it would be good for us to learn to fly. I was not as enthusiastic but did not want to derail her ambitions. I went along and we enjoyed a terrific flying career together. We picked up commercial and instrument tickets and flew around the country and in New Zealand and South Africa. It doesn’t get much better than that.

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 17, 2017 at 12:37 am | Permalink

              Wow.

              Thanks for the explanation; I’m a little bit in awe… 🙂

  29. barn owl
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Recently, my sister and I divided up about 40 small books that had belonged to my maternal grandmother, and that my parents didn’t want to store in their house any longer (familial packrat tendencies having skipped a generation). They’re all part of an extensive series called Macmillan’s Pocket American and English Classics, published in the early 1900s. As far as I can tell, the series were used for teaching in primary and secondary schools, and also provided average citizens an opportunity to own a (relatively) inexpensive personal library, with which to entertain and educate themselves. My grandmother and one of her sisters were schoolteachers for a number of years, but neither attended college. My grandmother’s family were farmers, and/or held a variety of other “blue collar” jobs.

    Some of the books that I have in this series are: Lamb’s Essays of Elia, Irving’s Sketch Book, Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Emerson’s Essays, Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. All of them have hefty introductions with biographical details about the author, historical context, analyses of plot and characters, etc., and many have study questions and points of discussion recommended for primary and secondary school students. Some have notes in my grandmother’s hand, indicating that she used them in her classes for older primary school students (ages 10-12). I know that my friends who have children complain that their kids have loads of homework, but I don’t think any of them are reading Emerson or discussing the Ancient Mariner. Perhaps I’m just out of touch, but I think that we USAians, on the whole, are suffering from the consequences of everything being pitched at the lowest common intellectual denominator.

  30. Mark Joseph
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Rats. I don’t have time to post replies to about 10 or 15 posts here, and would probably break the Roolz if I did.

    So, let this one quote suffice: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

  31. Dave Larson
    Posted February 15, 2017 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I looked: I’ve read 7 in the last 3 weeks and 93 in the last year. Not much “literature” in there.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] via On the non-reading of books by Americans — Why Evolution Is True […]

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *
*
*

%d bloggers like this: