Only Four Books a Year

book34a.jpgFour books a year . . . that’s what the average person reads according to a new survey. From the AP:

One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and seniors were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.

The survey reveals a nation whose book readers, on the whole, can hardly be called ravenous. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn’t read any, the usual number read was seven.

“I just get sleepy when I read,” said Richard Bustos of Dallas, Texas, a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify. Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager for a telecommunications company, said he had not read any books in the last year and would rather spend time in his backyard pool.

That choice by Bustos and others is reflected in book sales, which have been flat in recent years and are expected to stay that way indefinitely. Analysts attribute the listlessness to competition from the Internet and other media, the unsteady economy and a well-established industry with limited opportunities for expansion.

Some other interesting parts of the article:

In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts report titled “Reading at Risk” found only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop in a decade. The study faulted television, movies and the Internet.

Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn’t read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious. . . .

Among those who said they had read books, the median figure — with half reading more, half fewer — was nine books for women and five for men. The figures also indicated that those with college degrees read the most, and people aged 50 and up read more than those who are younger. . . .

People from the South read a bit more than those from other regions, mostly religious books and romance novels. Whites read more than blacks and Hispanics, and those who said they never attend religious services read nearly twice as many as those who attend frequently.

There was even some political variety evident, with Democrats and liberals typically reading slightly more books than Republicans and conservatives.

The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre — including politics, poetry and classical literature — were named by fewer than five percent of readers.

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8 Responses

  1. What is a “book”? How many journal articles do I have to read to count as a “book”? Does spending all year on Finnegans Wake count as just one book, the same as picking up Danielle Steel’s latest at the beach? Does À la recherche du temps perdu count as one book or seven?

    (I’m sure a proper statistician, like the one at the blogosphere’s own God Plays Dice can find more fuzziness here than I can)

  2. Eric Goldman says:

    OK, but how many *law review articles* does the average person read in a year? Eric.

  3. Katie says:

    I would imagine anyone at the higher end of the spectrum just has to guess, too. There’s absolutely no way I could reconstruct the list of books I’ve read in the last year, and I particularly couldn’t do it quickly over the phone during a conversation with a pollster. My instinct is to say most people would underestimate, since a large portion of what they read would slip their mind, but maybe not.

  4. Isabel says:

    John Armstrong has begged me to comment on this article; I do so here. The short version: how do you count? what’s so great about books, anyway? But I read a lot of books. And all their claims about how group X reads more than group Y are probably inaccurate (or at least have very large margins of error) due to the small sample sizes.

  5. Bruce Boyden says:

    It would be bad if *literacy* has decreased but this survey doesn’t say that. Fewer people are getting their entertainment from books. I’m one — I read hardly any fiction. Does that make me benighted?

  6. Frank says:

    As for Isabel’s query on why books matter, here is a response:

    “Books, argues Birkerts, provide narratives that help us to understand the “forces impinging on our lives”. They also provide us with “a space for reflection”, a “kind of wisdom that cannot be discovered elsewhere” and with experiences which we can use “as a basis for interpreting the behaviour of people around us”.”

    Birkerts blames the web for seducing people away from the book. The reviewer summarizes his list of complaints against electro-reading:

    “A fragmented sense of time, reduced attention span, impatience with sustained inquiry, shattered faith in explanatory narratives, divorce from the past, an absence of vision, language erosion, waning of the private self: these are, in Birkerts’ vision, the nasty side-effects of “electronic postmodernity”.”

    I’d put in some more quotes but I have to check my Sage reader….

  7. Ann Bartow says:

    If you aren’t reading at least one novel a month, get yourself a book club. Or, start want if you can’t find one that suits. It’s a great way to make good friends and build a social network. I’m in two, one that saved my life after I moved to SC, and a second I helped found for new transplants (since my pre-existing one was already at maximum capacity). As Larry Solum might say, “Highly Recommended!”

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    Apropos of John and Isabel: what’s “so great” about books as distinguished from articles is that they’re usually a more sustained structure, and designed to be less ephemeral. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great, and long, journal articles, or that Danielle Steele is great literature. But even an edited volume of articles should have some larger arc or dialectic that transcends what you can get from a free-standing article (if the editor has done his or her job).

    When I started as an associate at a big firm, I got frustrated by the vast torrents of ephemeral stuff I had to read. But I found that reading the Wall Street Journal or a magazine to relax at night just before sleeping wasn’t soothing at all. (TV and videos even less so.) So I made three rules: (i) read a book, not a periodical, immediately before sleeping (absent other, more intimate distractions); (ii) even reading one page or paragraph is good enough; and (iii) have a cut-off time for non-work-related reading about law when at home, e.g. 8:00 pm. Purpose of rule (iii) was to force me to read recreationally about other subjects, not that I really needed encouragement to do so.

    The one-paragraph rule came in very handy when I’d come home at 4:00 am for weeks on end after nights at the printer. The restorative part of reading a book was that it had continuity, it was something with a longer-range outlook than the noise and minor (or major) irritation I’d endured during the day.

    Apropos of Katie’s comment: There’s an easy way to keep track — just keep a list. After a few years of the above regimen, I got frustrated that I couldn’t recall what books I’d read. So I started keeping a list, by year. I also note in what month I finish the book; not sure why I started doing that, but actually it helps me to recall what I was doing within different seasons of the year. If you’re not sure whether reading, say, an illustrated novel or a 150-page journal article or an issue of GRANTA counts as a book, you can just denote it with an asterisk or whatever on your list. Later I also noted my annual reading trends by genre — esp. so I could be sure to include enough fiction in my diet.

    Point is, it’s a cheap but nice feeling of accomplishment when you can add a book to the list. This reinforces that feeling of continuity and slower rhythms that are so important to hold on to in a legal career. (I’m assuming that most of the non-lawyer public isn’t reading this blog; but I think this can be helpful to anybody.)

    My lists go back to 1988. Now they serve as a great jog to my memory, almost like the diary I never had time to keep.