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I've seen this statistic reported on several sites (for example, Those Who Don't Build Must Burn and Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally), along with a list of other startling numbers.

  • 33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  • 57% of new books are not read to completion.

According to the Mental Floss article Who Reads Books? these numbers came from a 2003 survey conducted by an organization called the Jenkins Group. That article mentions that they've been unable to uncover any explanation of the results, and I haven't been able to find the original survey myself. (Do a search for some of the phrases in the bulleted list above and you'll see that the survey has been quoted so many times that it makes finding anything useful via a Google search very difficult.)

My own very biased and unscientific survey of "a bunch of people that I know" makes me skeptical of the reported figures. My question has two parts:

  1. Has anyone verified (or debunked) the results of the original survey? (If anyone can even find it.)
  2. A lot has changed since 2003 (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, ebooks). Have there been any more recent surveys that show a decline in the statistics reported by the Jenkins Group?
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This question has an open bounty worth +200 reputation from Django Reinhardt ending in 6 days.

The current answer(s) are out-of-date and require revision given recent changes.

Would love to read some recent statistics from credible sources on this matter. Thanks.

My gut says these numbers are probably in the ballpark for the US. Looking forward to seeing any answers... –  Rex M May 14 '12 at 23:07
Interesting question. I don't believe the year 2003 is significant in this case. If you look at Wikipedia's list of best-selling books there are numerous books that have sold a lot more than the ones you mention. –  Brian Rasmussen May 14 '12 at 23:11
What percentage of books are even intended to be read to completion? I've never read a cookbook to completion. Were those counted in the stats? –  Flimzy May 14 '12 at 23:13
The figure for not having been in a bookstore is actually fairly plausible depending upon where you live but some more context is definitively needed for some of those numbers. –  rjzii May 14 '12 at 23:42
I would say that more and more often books are bought online rather than in a bookstore... –  nico May 15 '12 at 7:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Brief summary for those who don't want to read the whole thing - reading in the United States is in decline, but not to the extent suggested by the Jenkins Group survey.

I'll take each point from the question in turn and attempt to answer it.

I wasn't able to find the Jenkins Group survey referred to, however I found two useful reports by National Endowment for the Arts - To Read or Not To Read and Reading At Risk and I'll mostly be using these.

33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives


42% of college graduates never read another book after college

Reading At Risk shows the rates of literature reading amongst high school and college graduates:

Literary Reading by Education

Note that respondents were asked if they had read any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school) during the previous 12 months. So this would appear to be a narrower question than that asked by the Jenkins Group survey.

It's also worth noting that the more education you have received the more likely you are to read literature, which is the opposite of what was claimed by the Jenkins Group survey.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year

This graph from Reading At Risk shows that 56.6% of individuals stated that they had read a book in the previous 12 months.

Participation in Literary Activities

If 56.6% of individuals have read a book, then I don't see how only 20% of households could have read a book.

70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years

I was unable to find much useful data on this point. Bookstores have been in decline and now account for less than half of book sales (source):

Traditional bookstores accounted for less than half of the book market last year ... The majority of books were sold by a variety of other retailers including Amazon, Price Clubs, supermarkets and convenience stores.

It's worth noting that book sales have been relatively flat (source - To Read or Not To Read), and I'm not convinced that it matters where a book was bought.

Unit Sales of Consumer Books

57% of new books are not read to completion

I was unable to find any useful data on this point.

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Quite interesting, but the data is 10 years old. This is especially relevant, I think, for the bookstore stats. Surely bookstore visits/sales have dropped significantly in the last 10 years, compared to online sales. (I agree with you that this doesn't really matter, but it is relevant to the specific claim). –  Flimzy May 15 '12 at 18:50
The survey in the question was from 2003, so I think data from 2002 is OK. –  Tom77 May 15 '12 at 22:04
Thank you. It was the first three stats that I was really most curious about. I agree that "70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years" wasn't really that meaningful to begin with, and is losing ground every day. "57% of new books are not read to completion" was the most believable of the claims in my mind, but that's mostly due to the fact that many books just aren't meant to be read cover to cover. –  Bill the Lizard May 16 '12 at 2:31
well said, Bill. Most books I buy are reference works, not novels. And though I rarely enter a physical store any more, I visit Amazon several times a week, actually more than I would in the past visit brick and mortar bookstores. My guess is that's the same as for many others. –  jwenting May 16 '12 at 8:44
I think the association between "reading in the United States is in decline" and "reading books" isn't necessarily a good one anymore. I am constantly pouring over articles and technical texts; and on top of that you have all the websites and blogs that I follow -- but thinking back I don't think I've read a book cover to cover this year. –  Chuu Sep 27 '14 at 14:12

Another resource on reading statistics is the book Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community by Catherine Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer. This book has data from a variety of sources grouped by age of reader. One idea I took from this book is when evaluating reading studies, you need to understand how they define reading and reading material. In our modern society, reading might not be declining. It may be that people are not reading as many books. Another important question is why are people not reading book and does this lack make our society dumb or are we evolving?

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Could you please summarise the content of the book here? Also, please substantiate the other claims you’ve made. As per the FAQ, all claims on this site must be referenced. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 30 '12 at 10:08

As for recent statistics from credible sources on this question of high school graduates and book reading, PewResearchCenter, a conductor of public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research was kind to publish this reading snapshot in January 16, 2014:

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This 'reading snapshot' indicates that only 64% of high school graduates read at least one book in the past year, which means 36% of high school graduates didn't read at least one book in the past year.

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Interesting that the percentages peak for income levels $50,000-$74,999 and then drop slightly for incomes $75,000 and higher. Too busy to read perhaps? –  tcrosley 5 hours ago

The Jenkins Group reading statistics were based on a variety of legitimate sources, including the Book Industry Study Group and U.S. News & World Reports per libereading. Calculating the probability of percentage of high school graduates to never read another book for the rest of their lives depends on several other important factors such as education, time spent on reading and time spent in reading outside their class.

Some of the latest statistics for reading in children by other surveys are provided below.

Per Annika Bergström in 2014, research shows that there is a decline in book reading noticed within the last few decades in Europe and in the US.

  1. According to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) in 2009, the percentage of Americans who read at least one book of fiction or nonfiction in the previous 12 months (outside of work or school requirements) decreased from the early 1990s to 2008, the time span for which data of this kind are available. Whereas in 1992 61% of Americans reported having read a book for pleasure during the previous year, in 2008 54% reported having done so. The SPPA findings make clear that age matters when it comes to reading rates.

The greatest decline in reading rates, 10 percentage points (approximately a 15% drop), occurred among adults ages 18–54. For each of the groups of older Americans examined here, the decline was not statistically significant. Taken as a whole, older Americans (55+) were just as likely to be book readers in 2008 as they were in 1992. Book reading in 2008 was more common in the United States than in such countries as Italy and Greece, but less so than in the Scandinavian nations of Finland and Sweden (the top-ranked country).

  1. According to the survey carried out by TNS Opinion & Social network in the then 27 Member States of the European Union and in Croatia between 26 April and 14 May 2013, “reading a book” is strongly predicated by the level of education of the respondent (managers have the highest book-reading frequency).

Reading a book was almost as popular, 68% having read a book at least once in the last year. There has also been a decline in reading books, with fewer respondents saying they had read at least one book in the last 12 months (down from 71% to 68%). In all EU countries (with the exception of Portugal) lack of time is given as the main reason for not reading more books in the last year.

Education appears to be the strongest predictor of reading, with 51% of respondents who had studied beyond the age of 19 and 48% of those still studying reading 5 or more books in a year. In some ways it is a little surprising that respondents still studying are not reading more; perhaps some of them spend a lot of time reading parts of books/textbooks, and they might not describe this as “reading a book” in the context of cultural practices. Predictably, managers and students were the occupational categories with the highest book-reading frequency; 59% of managers and 48% of students had read more than 5 books a year.

Lack of time is the most frequent reason given for not reading books more often by 25- 39 year-olds (56%). Respondents who left education at 15 or before give lack of interest as the main reason for not reading more (44%), while just 25% mention lack of time. Strikingly, at least 45% of all those leaving education after the age of 15 years of age say that lack of time is the most important reason for not reading more. It appears that those spending the most time in education believe that reading is a very important cultural activity and that lack of interest is a less acceptable reason for not reading than lack of time.

  1. Per estimates for September through May, 2003–07, the percentage of high school students in USA spending time for reading is low when compared to percentage of high school students spending time for other activities. Research shows that children who read frequently develop stronger reading skills.

  2. Per Christina Clark in 2015, levels of daily reading also continue to increase for children in UK.

Indeed, the increase in daily reading levels between 2013 and 2014 has been dramatic: 2014 saw an increase of 28.6% in the number of children and young people who read daily outside class, rising from 32.2% in 2013 to 41.4% in 2014. Only 1 in 7 (13.7%) rarely or never reads outside class. Young people who enjoy reading very much are three times as likely to read above the level expected for their age compared with young people who do not enjoy reading at all (34.9% vs. 10.7%). Similarly, young people who read outside class daily are five times as likely to read above the expected level for their age compared with young people who never read outside class (23.0% vs. 4.9%

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Which source does show that "33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives"? I see none. –  George Chalhoub 8 hours ago
Already mentioned that in the answer that the calculation of probability in the claim '33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives' depends on various other factors such as education, age, time spent in reading outside class which is not measured in these surveys. Even your answer just mentions '36% of high school graduates didn't read at least one book in the past year' which is not related to the portion of the claim 'never read another book for the rest of their lives'. –  pericles316 8 hours ago

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