Menus Subscribe Search

We Read It

book-shelves

(Photo: kennymatic/Flickr)

What Does It Mean That 1 in 4 Adults Didn’t Read a Book Last Year?

• January 30, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: kennymatic/Flickr)

Those numbers sound way more alarming than they actually are. The bigger problem: the stagnant literacy rate.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its survey on America’s reading habits. Depending on whom you asked, the survey either exposed the age of illiteracy or revealed the rise of the literati. Those tearing their tunics and pulling their hair bemoaned that 24 percent of adults did not read a single book last year; others sang praises to the heavens that 76 percent of adults still read books.

Almost three-quarters of American adults read at least one book, either print or electronic or audio, in the last year. The typical reader consumed five. E-books are on the rise; audio books are still popular; and even most of those who consume books in alternative formats continue to read printed books. Fifty percent of those surveyed have a tablet or e-reader and 92 percent have a mobile phone.

Our reading habits reflect not only our choices, but also our abilities. More and more, they also reflect our access. Acquiring books, new or used, may seem like an inexpensive venture for most, but for others the cost is prohibitive.

The Pew survey is a fascinating look at how often and by what means we read, though it reveals little about what we actually read. According to Nielson BookScan, the five best-selling books of 2013 were: Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck (the eighth book in the series); Dan Brown’s Inferno; Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus; Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven; and Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades. Look at Amazon sales, and the list is a little different: Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder 2.0; Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead; Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck; Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures With Exceptional Americans; and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence.

If we are what we read, then Americans are wimpy, religious, ambitious, self-improving, and patriotic. The specific possibility that the only book any adult read last year was one of the best-selling books on the Nielson or Amazon list is perhaps more disheartening than the shapeless fact that three-quarters of the American population read only one book. But reading is reading, no matter what is read, and the Pew study looks specifically at books when no doubt most of those surveyed read something in the last year, even if it’s wasn’t books.

The availability of well-reported stories and long-form journalism, as well as fiction and poetry, online suggests that our literary diets might have evolved, not become emaciated. A decade ago, you might have heard a story on the news or read an article in your daily newspaper that led you to buy a book on the subject. Now the same tidbit, however you find it, sends you to the Web to find context from many sources and opinions from multiple writers. The deep analysis we associate with books can be found scattered across the Internet like chapters without a binding, an endless collection of ideas that we edit ourselves.

In the past, your collective library could be seen on your shelves and in your loan history at the library. Now it’s in various browser histories, divided between devices, stretched between pages of books, audio files, emails, and PDFs. The complexity of the Pew survey shows how much more difficult it is to track “reading” in the Digital Age.

However, the most critical measure of our reading culture is not necessarily the amount read, in whatever format, but the ability to read. Last April, the United States Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found that 32 million Americans, or about 14 percent of the population, cannot read, while almost a quarter of American adults read below a fifth-grade level. In fact, literacy rates in America haven’t risen much in two decades.

Those sobering figures complicate whatever judgments we might make about last week’s Pew study. Our reading habits reflect not only our choices, but also our abilities. More and more, they also reflect our access. Acquiring books, new or used, may seem like an inexpensive venture for most, but for others the cost is prohibitive. The free alternatives, public libraries, are chronically underfunded: local branches are closing, while opening hours and staff are increasingly limited. To assume that the 24 percent of adults who did not read a single book last year chose to do so is to ignore the likelihood that some of those surveyed cannot read or could not access a book.

Suppose, though, a sizable portion of those surveyed can read, but don’t, or have access to books, but choose not to read them. Once we’ve funded literacy programs and adequately supported public libraries, then how do we nurture a reading culture?

Some of the specifics of the Pew survey offer ideas; the detailed analysis found that: “Women are more likely than men to have read a book in the previous 12 months, and those with higher levels of income and education are more likely to have done so as well.” Education is critical to cultivating a culture of reading, not only basic literacy, but a love of reading. The so-called “language gap” begins early, some believe as early as the first 18 months of a child’s life, and it only grows. If we truly want a nation of readers, then our conversations about inequality ought to focus on education, not only income.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.