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Are Americans actually reading literature?

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The National Endowment for the Arts published an interesting survey recently that analyzes the literary reading habits of contemporary Americans. In the survey, the NEA defines literature as “novels, short stories, poems, or plays not required for work or school” and thereby omits genres such as non-fiction and excludes persons such as students and academics.

The survey attempts to demonstrate that American reading habits correlate with personal factors and situations. For example, it concludes that women, approximately 50 percent of those who read literature, read more than men; non-Hispanic white individuals out-read those who are Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, and “other” by as much as twenty three percent; 65 to 74 year olds read the most literature, while those who are 75 years of age and older read the least; and individuals who complete higher levels of education – undergraduates and graduates, for example – often read more literature than those who receive less.

From their data, the NEA claims that literary reading in America is experiencing decline, a downward trend that is not new. However, the survey’s controversial format does not account for the means by which Americans read literature, and it does not accurately portray the number of books that they are reading every year.

In other words, although the rate at which individuals read literature appears to be declining, the survey does not make claims about the extent to which Americans read in general.

The survey’s limitations here are interesting when considered alongside the recent international rise in e-book popularity. According to one study done by the Pew Research Center in 2016, e-book usage spiked around 2011 and 2012, decreased minimally in 2014, and has increased slowly since then. The popularity of audiobooks in America is also increasing, although not nearly as dramatically as the e-book.

Despite this national rise in e-book popularity, the Pew study indicates that print books are still far more popular among Americans than e-books – in fact, they remain a popular choice among Americans regardless of whether e-books are a part of the equation.

According to Pew, “the share of Americans who have read a book in the last twelve months – 73 percent – remains largely unchanged since 2012. And when people reach for a book, it is much more likely to be a traditional print book than a digital product.”

Unlike NEA, Pew does not limit its study of American reading habits only to literature. Rather, Pew accounts for books of all sorts, thereby giving a more realistic picture of American reading habits than NEA. Altogether, Pew shows that while American reading habits have certainly declined in decades past, they have not dropped off in recent years nearly as dramatically as we often presume.

When viewed together, the implications of both studies are intriguing. Although interest in “literature” – that being novels, short stories, poems and plays – in America is on the decline, interest in reading itself actually appears to be increasing. Although the increase is admittedly minimal – as little as one percent and as much as two or three – to say that Americans are reading more today than one year or two years prior actually contradicts popular assumptions about the downfall of American reading habits.

miller2@stolaf.edu