So, Americans Read Books After All (or Claim They Do, at Least)

Americans aren’t quite as post-literate (or aliterate) as conventional wisdom might suggest. In a Harris Poll on people’s reading habits, or lack thereof, just 9 percent of respondents said they read no books at all in an average year. Twenty-three percent read 1-3 books, 19 percent read 4-6, 13 percent read 7-10 and 37 percent read more than 10 (or so they say).

Of course, reading books and buying books are two different things. Twenty percent of respondents said they bought no books at all in the past year, while 23 percent bought 1-3, 18 percent bought 4-6, 12 percent bought 7-10 and 27 percent bought more than 10. Women were less likely than men to have bought no books (17 percent vs. 23 percent) and more likely to have bought 10 or more (32 percent vs. 22 percent). In a breakdown by age group, people 63 and older were the most likely to have bought no books (24 percent), but also the most likely to have bought more than 10 (31 percent).

Among people who don’t read books (or read less than they used to), lack of time may be as much a problem as lack of inclination. While 22 percent of respondents said they have more time for reading books than they did five years ago, 45 percent said they have less. (The rest said they have about the same amount). The gap was even wider among 32-43-year-olds — i.e., people in the prime child-rearing years — with 15 percent saying they have more time for books and 50 percent saying they have less. The disparity was nearly as wide among the 44-62-year-olds, with 19 percent saying they have more time for books and 48 percent saying they have less. Only in the 63-and-older cohort did “more time” beat “less time” (38 percent vs. 22 percent).

People who reported reading at least one book in the past year were asked to specify the genres in which they read during that period. Men were much more likely than women to have read works of history (44 percent vs. 27 percent) or business (21 percent vs. 7 percent). Women were more likely than men to have read true-crime books (17 percent vs. 10 percent) or self-help volumes (23 percent vs. 17 percent).

As for fiction, the mystery/crime/thriller category was tops among women (57 percent) and men (38 percent). Playing true to stereotype, men were more apt than women to have read westerns (11 percent vs. 3 percent) and women were more apt than men to have read romance novels (38 percent vs. 3 percent). Men were keen on science fiction (34 percent) and women much less so (18 percent).

Getting more specific, Harris asked people to say what their favorite book is. The top vote-getter in this open-ended question was the Bible, leading among all the demographic groups. The overall runner-up was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, but a number of population cohorts had other ideas. Among men, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series ran second. Among blacks, Angels and Demons (by Dan Brown) did so. The poll’s 18-31-year-olds gave second place to J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, while The Stand (by Stephen King) and Angels and Demons tied for that status among 32-43-year-olds.

In a breakdown by educational attainment, respondents with a high school diploma or less picked Gone With the Wind for second, while those with some college opted for The Stand. Lord of the Rings won second place among college graduates, and it shared second place with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird among respondents with post-graduate education.

Other books finishing in the top 10 among all respondents included The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown), Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) and Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger).