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