Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

New reading data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released the findings of its latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted in July 2012.

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As of mid-2012, the survey found that 58% of all American adults ages 18 and older had engaged in “voluntary reading” within the past year. Here’s how that “Voluntary Reading” category breaks down:

  • 54% of American adults read a book not required for work or school
  • 47% of Americans engaged in “literary reading,” which the NEA defines as reading novels or short stories (45% of adults), poetry (7%), or plays (3%).

Overall, 58% of American adults (or roughly 136 million Americans) did at least one of these types of reading in the previous year. Our own research has found that 75% of Americans ages 16 and older read a book of any kind in 2012, including books read for school or work.

Though the proportion of adults who had read a book of any kind outside of school or work in the past year remained constant between NEA surveys, the share who read a work of literature declined from 50% in 2008 to 47% in 2012.

The report also found an increase in overall book reading among adults ages 65 and older from 55% in 2008 to 61% in 2012. Additionally, adults ages 65-74 “are among those with the highest rates of literary reading,” with 52% consuming some type of literary work in the previous year.

However, as we found in our own late 2012 survey, young adults are also reading at similar rates as most other age groups: 48% of Americans ages 18-24 said they read a literary work (compared with 47% of all adults) and 52% said they read a book of any type (compared with 55% of all adults). Our research has found that when reading for work and school is factored in, 79% of 18-24 year-olds read a book of any kind in the previous year—as had 90% of 16-17 year-olds.

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