November 23, 2016

Who doesn’t read books in America?

Credit: iStock by Getty Images
Credit: iStock by Getty Images

About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. So who, exactly, are these non-book readers?

Several demographic traits correlate with non-book reading, Pew Research Center surveys have found. For instance, adults with a high school degree or less are about three times as likely as college graduates (40% vs. 13%) to report not reading books in any format in the past year. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey shows that these less-educated adults are also the least likely to own smartphones or tablets, two devices that have seen a substantial increase in usage for reading e-books since 2011. (College-educated adults are more likely to own these devices and use them to read e-books.)

Adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are about twice as likely as the most affluent adults to be non-book readers (33% vs. 17%). Hispanic adults are also about twice as likely as whites (40% vs. 23%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months.

Older Americans are a bit more likely than their younger counterparts not to have read a book. Some 29% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 23% of adults under 50. In addition, men are less likely than women to have read a book, as are adults in rural areas compared with those in urban areas. 

The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months is largely unchanged since 2012, but is slightly higher than in 2011, when the Center first began conducting surveys of book-reading habits. That year, 19% of adults reported not reading any books.

Given the share that hasn’t read a book in the past year, it’s not surprising that 19% of U.S. adults also say they have not visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year. The same demographic traits that characterize non-book readers also often apply to those who have never been to a library. For example, men, Hispanics, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000 and those who have no more than a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school are the most likely to report they have never been to a public library.

Topics: Demographics, E-reading, Education, Internet Activities, Leisure Activities, Libraries

  1. is a research assistant focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.

20 Comments

  1. Cym Camille Coffman-Mitch3 months ago

    so where did they take these poles? the mall? or a random phone call? I think that could make a difference in the outcome. take it outside a library.

    1. David Kent3 months ago

      This was a random-digit-dial survey by landline and cellphone. Methodology can be found here: pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-…

  2. Anonymous3 months ago

    I feel like only 1% of Americans actually READ books. and when I say read books I mean they try to read 1-2 books per week. Thats a true reader/ self educator who values knowledge. they are most likely in the upper class too because they’re so knowledgable.

  3. Anonymous3 months ago

    So, I guess reading articles and research studies on the Pew Research Web site wouldn’t qualify, since they aren’t in book form……

    And, I guess reading Scientific American magazine wouldn’t qualify, but reading one recipe from a cookbook would…. (The study asks whether one has read a book in whole or in part.)

  4. Rita Ihly3 months ago

    I learned to read at age 6, and was hooked!! I read fiction, non fiction, and my diverse curiosity is outstandingly provided by our local library in Bellingham WA!! These folks, for a community of our size deserve every medal that there exists! We have a very tech savvy and program offering that serves all. We can download magazines, we can access a language learning site, we have ProQuest – a path to news and magazine articles. I often read on the web of a book recently published. If interested, I put a reserve on it, and when the library acquires it, I am one of the first to get it. Intralibrary loan gets me books out of print and from any library that has the book to lend not available at our facility. We have CD’s. magazines, newspapers to read, and a fantastically friendly and helpful staff! Children’s programs, and rooms for civic talks. My philosophy is not to collect books to enhance the collection bookshelf, but to read a book and ‘recycle’ it via the library. I feel if authors give so much of themselves to write a book, what good is sitting on a shelf at home? Books are to be read and shared. No doubt about it, I ♥ my library!!!. And I am so grateful to the authors who have so enriched my life. They deserve to find the greatest access to readers.
    Rita, 88 years young!

  5. Anonymous3 months ago

    There may be an underlying assumption that reading a book is a good thing. I’d be interested in the content of the books that people have read, perhaps as a follow-up study. Reading a book on certain subjects can be worse than not reading at all.

  6. Stacy Flit3 months ago

    This needed no research and for a number of reasons which I believe are quite simple. Mainly books are not advertised thus demographics are not targeted. Then how many of us can say that in school we were required to read certain books? I can say that., and those required books were mostly boring and had no appeal to me. That could keep some from reading ever again. Some of the books I read on my own were suggested by friends. Good books I have read I had a hard time putting down.
    I do not have time to hunt for books that may interest me. Bookstores and libraries line up books on shelves standing up so one must crane the neck 90 degrees to read the titles! I can stand about 5 minutes of that!
    “Best Seller” lists are akin to Top Forty recordings-I never liked Top 40 FM music but I have a marvelous collection of music which I have amassed over my 62 years thanks in part to underground FM radio of the 70s and friends suggestions.
    Then there is Oprah, goddess of luck and no talent making billions for doing nothing cancelling her “book club” because she said there are not any good books anymore!
    BTW I am a high school drop out but have a high IQ.

    1. Anonymous3 months ago

      This sounds exactly like a high school dropout! They claim they have high IQ (who tested this person) but they say excactly what the research said they would – they do not read much. They use the typical high school student response to why they refuse to complete assignments or focus on academic goals in high school. The reason given is almost always ‘boring.”

  7. James Milford3 months ago

    Haven’t been to a public library in 30 years, and read severeal books a month.

  8. Anonymous3 months ago

    I wonder of those that do read, how many read to acquire knowledge or only read for entertainment.

    1. Anonymous3 months ago

      you don’t have to read to just acquire knowledge. If you read literature for entertainment, you are also improving your reasoning and thinking and many other skills.

  9. Anonymous3 months ago

    In Catalonia (Spain), we have conducted a similar focused survey, about the non-users of libraries. Here you can find it: biblioteques.gencat.cat/web/.content/tematic/persones_no_usuaries.pdf

  10. Anonymous3 months ago

    Pitiful!!! Never having been in a library, inexcusable!!!

    1. Samuel Rath3 months ago

      Agreed!!! That’s where I get all my extra exclamation marks as well!!!

      1. Anonymous3 months ago

        nice

  11. Anonymous3 months ago

    I write trade books. These people don’t have time. If you want them to read your book you have to write a book that is shorter, concise and relatively fast paced. Everyone wants to write the ‘ great American novel ‘, which is terrific, but if people don’t have time to read it because they work for a living, they won’t be reading it. Curiously you will earn the same amount of money with a concise work as with a lengthy one.

    😉

    1. Anonymous3 months ago

      Excellent point. If you are doing manual labor for a living, from my experience, when you sit down, you fall asleep. When you work 2 or mor jobs, you have no time.

  12. Anonymous3 months ago

    The information is significant but not surprising. However, the research now needs to go much farther. For those who are not reading a book-why? Where are these people getting their information? Are they doing other forms of entertainment that they fine enriching? For those reading-why? What are they reading? How many of the non-readers have problems reading? Why have they not gone to a library? What is their library like or is one even available? I tutor students at two different libraries. One is a beautiful, large library with several rooms and filled with computers. The other, located in a Latino community has two rooms and ten computers. It is packed to the gills when I go-so it is being used but there is not much room or anywhere near the book options as the larger library. More questions to ask.

  13. David Alan Coia3 months ago

    Yes, well what kind of books are we reading, fiction or non-fiction? How many in each category? While books read in whole or in part are tabulated, the ambiguity there is even greater than for what constitutes a book in the first place. It would be more instructive to know how many books readers complete each year. Reading a popular romance novel isn’t quite the same as reading a comprehensive history of India or an economic history of the United States, etc. Pew can do better, I’m sure.

  14. Paul Dulaney3 months ago

    It seems odd to me that Asian Americans and Native Americans were not identified as separate sub-groups. Also, in this election year, why not ask how this question breaks along party lines. (I’m a Republican, but even I suspect that Democrats read more than we do.)