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Three out of four people read books!

The “news” that a sizable minority of the population doesn’t read books appears scary, until you turn it around. A thousand years ago, well over ninety percent of the population worked a long day and went home to stare in the fire all night. Now three out of four people read, and the rest are either struggling to stay awake (poor Richard Bustos, who will be forever remembered as the guy who gets “sleepy” when he reads) or, presumably, soaking up Last Comic Standing, catching up on the last season of the Sopranos, noodling on the Web, or reading newspapers or magazines.

Those last two points are important, because this article exhumes and trots about the 2004 NEA report, “Reading at Risk,” which at best proved what we already know, that most people do not read literary fiction. It didn’t prove much of anything else, because as the Village Voice among others pointed out, by the standards of “Reading at Risk,” you aren’t reading right now. By the NEA’s standards, nothing I read in two years of a well-regarded writing program counts as reading, either.

The article also has a big apples-to-oranges flaw: this report measured how many books people claimed they had read, but the article compares its results to early studies of how many books people had started. I don’t know what my start-to-finish ratio is, but I have at least a dozen books out of the library, two more than just arrived by Amazon, and I doubt I’ll finish half of them. That’s the joy of reading: if I don’t like a book, I can put it down and know that there are many, many more to take its place.

If this article wanted to really scare the pants off the public, it should have measured how many books people finish with how many gift books people have even opened. Our loved ones often think they know what we like to read. I’d love to write about gift books, because I think the books we give others are stories we tell, in Didion’s words, “in order to live.”

One huge exception to my gift-book theory is Chris Rose’s collection of essays about life after Katrina, “1 Dead in Attic.” My friend Vicki sent me the small-press paperback Rose was peddling, and I was immediately engrossed in Roses’s stories of life in and after Katrina and captivated by Rose’s funny, frank style. At Vicki’s recent suggestion I bought the new, pleasingly thick Simon & Schuster edition, and I can barely wait. I’m finishing three fat books about Katrina, starting with Breach of Faith, plus I have the usual assortment of neat stuff I found at the library, but on August 29 I plan to set aside all of it and in honor of all that Katrina represents, read the new edition of “1 Dead in Attic.”

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  1. GraceAnne wrote:

    Completely random comment:

    There is an angel in

    freer *angel* ibrarian.

    I never noticed that before.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 6:18 am | Permalink
  2. Jeff wrote:

    Survey smurvey, 75% is no different that any other time. Reading has increased. I know in my community, five years ago, it was 75% came into a library, now its 86% and going higher. The average person checks out EIGHT books annually. Not sure what underlies all of these studies, but I read on another’s blog that it is a good way to promote your library since most libraries stats are higher than stated in the report. :)

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  3. I found the methodology of the survey somewhat deceiving as well. If people aren’t reading literary fiction in physical books, very well. But what about newspapers and magazines, like you said–? What about nonfiction (which is what I’ve been leisurely reading, more often than not)? What about people going online and reading, well, *blogs* and other online forums and networks? There’s a report about online gaming–with some of the more in-depth games, you have to read these thick game manuals and sometimes other hints books. And then where should audiobooks and e-books be placed–? And also, what does this mean next to the 2007 LJ Book Buying Survey, which showed a complementary relationship between libraries buying more fiction and circulation ever rising because of patrons coming in and taking out more and more fiction books? In some ways, I think that people are reading now more than ever, so I wished the report had gone in that direction, delved a little deeper, and not been spun to say that people aren’t reading *at all* if it’s not books that they’re choosing.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  4. Laura wrote:

    Yeah, I’ve always been irked with the way the NEA defined reading. So much for my three years in a nonfiction program!

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  5. Laura, that’s the problem with anything called “non.” I mean, why don’t they call fiction “nontruth?” cain’t get no respect!

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  6. GraceAnne, what a sweet observation :)

    Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  7. RfP wrote:

    I agree that the new AP/Ipsos study is weak. Its methodology just doesn’t stand up to the other (larger, more rigorous) surveys out there. I compared the AP findings to the other surveys here; basically, while AP finds that 73% read, other surveys find that the number who read is much lower. The 2000 Census found that 43% of adults had read a book that year. The 2002 NEA survey (much more rigorous) found that 57% of adults read a book that year (47% read fiction), which lines up pretty well with the NSF’s findings.

    NEA report, “Reading at Risk,” which at best proved… that most people do not read literary fiction.

    The NEA didn’t look at exclusively “literary” fiction. They looked initially at “all” books, then focused on “literature”–all fiction, poetry, and plays. They explicitly state that they didn’t differentiate types or judge quality of fiction.

    The NEA also looked at reading online. In 2002, they found that 9% of adults read online. Presumably that number will be higher in the next survey.

    Thursday, September 6, 2007 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  8. RfP, good comments. Let me clarify that the NEA ignored (creative/literary/narrative) nonfiction, as well as the entirety of the lively world of serial literature. Quite a few well-read people never read fiction *or* books. Who had a better reading experience, the reader who just finished Tin House, Missouri Review, and the latest Atlantic, or the person who read some drek such as “The Five People you Meet in Publix”?

    Friday, September 7, 2007 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  9. RfP wrote:


    The National Science Foundation’s 2002 study (PDF) did include serial literature–they were interested in any form of sci fi reading.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  10. chris wrote:

    what country are those stats for ?

    Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  11. chris wrote:

    Does anyone know what country are those stats for ?
    and what the stats are for New Zealand?

    Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

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  1. Library Stuff » Blog Archives » More on the Reading Study on Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 5:33 am

    [...] K.G. Schneider – “If this article wanted to really scare the pants off the public, it should have measured how many books people finish with how many gift books people have even opened.” Posted in READ, KGS | Trackback | | Top Of Page [...]

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