WASHINGTON – If you’re like me, you regard the decline in book reading as another sign of the cultural rot that is eating away at the American character. Why read something as demanding as a book when you can spend all your time on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? They’re easier and provide a quicker fix of entertainment, gossip and information. Book reading, especially reading old-fashioned physical books, simply isn’t competitive.
Well, guess what. That’s all wrong.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that book reading, while not exactly booming, is holding its own against the onslaught of new, time-consuming digital technologies. There’s been a slow slide of book reading, but it is hardly a rout and may now be stabilizing. What’s even more surprising is that the affection for reading extends to traditional books. Although e-books are becoming more popular, they still lag significantly behind paper books.
Here are the highlights of the Pew survey:
• In 2016, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of adult Americans aged 18 and over reported reading a book in the last year. That’s down from 79 percent in 2011 – the first year Pew conducted its survey – but virtually the same as 2012, when the share was 74 percent.
• Print books are still the overwhelming favorite of most Americans. In 2016, 65 percent reported reading a printed book, down from 71 percent in 2011 but equal with 2012’s 65 percent.
• E-books have achieved spectacular growth – in 2016, 28 percent of Americans reported reading one, up from 17 percent in 2011. By contrast, the rising trajectory of audio books has been slower; some 14 percent of Americans listened to one in the past year, up from 11 percent in 2011 but essentially unchanged from 2012’s 13 percent.
• Only a small proportion of Americans, 6 percent, exclusively read digital books. Meanwhile, 28 percent read both digital and print, and 38 percent read only print books. All the e-book totals include tablets and mobile phones as well as dedicated readers (Kindle, Nook and the like).
Naturally, book reading is not spread uniformly throughout the adult population. The median American – meaning the American precisely in the middle of the distribution of book readers – reads four books a year. Meanwhile, the average for all Americans is 12 books a year, the average being all books divided by the population. Some people read more (or less) than others.
Women read more than men, with 77 percent finishing at least one book compared with men’s 68 percent. Non-Hispanic whites (76 percent) read more than blacks (69 percent) or Hispanics (58 percent). Young people 18-to-29 read more (80 percent) than those 65-and-over (67 percent). The well-off with incomes exceeding $75,000 read more (81 percent) than the poor (65 percent) with incomes less than $30,000.
So we pessimists about cultural rot must revise our scorecards to conform with reality. Maybe almost everything is going to the dogs, but if so, book reading seems to be a conspicuous and welcome exception.
Robert Samuelson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.