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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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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. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books –  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

2 Answers 2

up vote 23 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

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