The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978


  1. 72 percent of American adults have read a book within the past year, down from 79 percent in 2011.
  2. Listening to audiobooks and reading e-books has grown since 2011, somewhat mitigating the reduction in print consumption.
  3. Declines in “serious” reading are most worrisome.

The next time you see a kid glued to their cell phone, just think: maybe they’re saving the art of reading. When it comes to reading books, kids are showing adults the way forward.

The Pew Research Center estimates that only 72 percent of American adults have read a book within the past year, down from 79 percent in 2011. Just one in five Americans read on any given day, down from one in four in 2006.

According to the American Time Use Survey—a long-running survey from the American Bureau of Labor Statistics—Americans of all ages report reading less. But the biggest declines haven’t been seen in Millenials, but rather those between 40 and 70 years old. The data suggests that the older you get, the less likely you are to “read a book in any format,” especially an e-book or audiobook.

As far as electronic devices go, they seem to be a major factor in stemming the declines in reading. Listening to audiobooks and reading e-books has grown since 2011, mitigating the reduction in print consumption.

And no, the rise of e-books hasn’t stemmed from the proliferation of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle. It turns out that cell phones and laptops are saving the day. According to Pew Research Center:

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of Americans who read books on tablet computers has increased nearly fourfold (from 4 percent to 15 percent), while the share who read books on smartphones has more than doubled (from 5 percent to 13 percent). The share of Americans who read books on desktop or laptop computers has also increased, although by a more modest amount: 11 percent of Americans now do this, up from 7 percent in 2011.

It appears as if books are being saved by pretty much any electronic device not labeled an “e-book reader.”

But before you get too excited, it seems as if cell phones and laptops have also made it easier to consume less “serious” content.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently reported that the percentage of American adults who read literature—defined as novels, short stories, poetry or plays—recently fell to a 30-year low. In 2015, 43 percent of adults read at least one work of literature, down from 57 percent in 1982.

Do declines in “serious” reading even matter? Maybe. At least The Washington Post seems to think so:

Does it even matter if people are reading fewer works of literature? What if we’re reading less Tolstoy, but filling the void with, say, Facebook statuses from our friends and articles we read online?

That may or may not be the case — the NEA’s surveys don’t ask people how many tweets or angry Web comments they read. But it’s nonetheless clear that when people don’t read literature, they miss out on a unique reading experience that no other type of writing can match.

Recent studies published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences and Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggest that fiction—particularly literary fiction—augments the level of empathy in the people who read it.

According to David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, reading fiction improves our “ability to infer and understand others’ thoughts and feelings.” This is known as Theory of Mind, and researchers believe it “has important consequences across the lifespan, supporting empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups.”

In a separate study, Keith Oatley came to a similar conclusion. “In long-term associations and shorter-term experiments,” he says, “engagement in fiction, especially literary fiction, has been found to prompt improvements in empathy and theory-of-mind.”

So even if the act of reading is salvaged by new forms of consumption, will the type of reading we engage with continue to save humanity?

Learn More

  1. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading — Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren
  2. Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy — Scientific American

  3. Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore? — The New Yorker