Most American Adults Read Books but Not Literature

What Women Really Think
Oct. 1 2013 4:59 PM

Most American Adults Read Books but Not Literature

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A woman shops for books at The Strand bookstore in New York City. New NEA numbers show that women continue to read more than men.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Americans are reading books but not “literary” ones, according to a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

More than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults' rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012).
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Since general reading rates have remained constant, that must mean we are reading a lot more nonfiction. Meanwhile, women continue to read circles around men, especially in fiction and literature: 64 percent of ladies read at least one book in 2012 (and 56 percent read at least one literary book), compared to only 45 percent of men (only 37 percent read at least one literary book).

A few other intriguing factoids, from the Los Angeles Times:

The biggest readers are older adults; 65- to 74-year-olds have the highest rate of reading of any age group, with 61% reading at least one book in 2012. Hispanic Americans read at lower rates than any other ethnic group (36%) but the percentage of Hispanic Americans reading for pleasure has gone up since 2008 (when it was 33%).

So if you are an 18- to 24-year-old Hispanic guy who loves Zadie Smith, good job! And if you are a 70-year-old white woman who devours a novel a month, you are a cliché.

Also, if I may: Why would anyone refuse the escapist pleasures of literature in 2012? Were we so riveted by the presidential election that we forgot to care about Thomas Cromwell’s courtly showdown with Anne Boleyn? Was the fiscal cliff crisis so joyous to contemplate that we had no hunger for Gone Girl? Was Todd Akin so eloquent and fantastical on “legitimate rape” that we had no need for Antigonick? Is it all Twitter’s fault?

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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