US losing appetite for reading fiction, research finds

Survey by National Endowment for the Arts records sharp fall in the number of adults who read novels and short stories

The number of adults in the US reading novels and short stories has hit a new low, with the decline of almost 8% in the last five years seen mainly among women, African Americans and younger adults, according to a major new survey.

Run in conjunction with the US Census Bureau at regular intervals since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed almost 30,000 adults. It found good news for poetry, with 11.7% of adults saying they had read poetry last year, an increase of 76% – equivalent to 28 million people – on 2012.

But novels and short-story reading rates have declined, from 47% of the US population in 2008, and 45.2% in 2012 to just 41.8% in 2017. According to the NEA, the drops were “mainly among women, African Americans, and 18- to 24-year-olds”. The percentage of women reading novels fell from 54.6% in 2012 to 50% five years later. African Americans reading novels were down almost 7%, to just over 30%, and 18- to 24-year-old fiction readers declined 7.2%, to 38.7%. White readers of novels were also down, by almost 3%, to 48%.

The continuing pattern of decline identified in the survey is echoed by book sales, according to Publishers Weekly, which cited figures from the Association of American Publishers that showed that fiction buyers had fallen by 17% between 2013 and 2018.

Overall, said the NEA, book reading remained “on par” with previous surveys in 2012 and 2008: almost 53% of American adults read a book in any genre in 2017 – not a statistically significant decline from 2012’s 54.6%. The survey did, however, call the 3% decline in female readers “significant”.

The boom in poetry reading – the first in the history of the NEA survey – was driven by younger readers: sales are thriving for “Instapoets” such as Rupi Kaur, whose collection Milk and Honey has sold more than 1m copies around the world. The share of 18- to 24-year-olds who read poetry more than doubled over the last five years, making this group the most likely to read poetry.

Women also flocked to poetry, increasing from 8% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2017, as did Hispanic poetry readers, up from 4.9% five years ago to 9.7% in 2017, African Americans (up 8.4%) and Asian Americans (up 7.8%). At 15.3%, the ethnic group most likely to read poetry in the US is now African Americans, the survey found.

“For the first time in the survey’s history, reading rates for poetry and plays have increased from the prior survey period,” wrote the NEA’s director of research and analysis, Sunil Iyengar, introducing the survey. “The surge in poetry reading was experienced by diverse demographic groups.”

Iyengar said that the NEA would explore the decline in novel and short story reading in future reports.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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