Released: April 4, 2012

The rise of e-reading

Part 2: The general reading habits of Americans

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Reading trends have fluctuated during the decades that polling organizations have been asking questions about Americans’ reading habits, especially when it comes to books. Our survey introduced several new dimensions of this exploration by asking about people’s purposes for reading, by looking at new technology formats, and by paying particular attention to the role of libraries and librarians in people’s reading lives.

The basic reasons why people read

Americans cite a variety of motives for their reading, especially when it comes to long-form content like books or magazine articles. It is sometimes the case that different people cite different motives. Generally, better educated Americans who have gone to at least some college and better off Americans who live in households earning over $50,000 are more likely than the less educated and Americans living in poorer households to read for all the reasons we queried:

Men (58%) are more likely than women (53%) to say they read for work or school-related reasons. Those under age 65 are considerably more likely to cite this reason, compared with seniors. This, too, is partly tied to the fact that proportionally fewer senior citizens are in the workforce. And parents (68%) are more likely than non-parents (48%) to say they read for this reason.

Technology users are uniformly more likely than non-users to be readers for all of these reasons. That applies to internet users, cell phone owners, tablet owners, and e-book reader owners.

Technology owners read more

The frequency with which people read for different reasons

There is considerable variance in the frequency with which people read for these reasons. People read most frequently to keep up with current events. Pleasure reading and work/school reading follow next.

How often people read for different purposes

Across the board, people who use the internet and other digital devices – such as cell phones, tablet computers, and e-book readers – are more frequent readers than non-users for each of these purposes. In addition, those who are relatively well-educated and have relatively higher incomes are more likely than others to be frequent readers in each realm.

Still, the survey shows that the most frequent readers in each area can be diverse. For instance, those who read frequently – daily or almost daily – for pleasure are more likely to be female, white or black (compared with Hispanics), over age 50 and non-parents of minors.  On the other hand, in current events reading, men are more likely than women to be daily readers (53% vs. 46%). Older adults are considerably more likely than younger ones to follow current events. Some 59% of those over age 50 read to follow current events every day or almost every day, compared with 38% of those ages 18-29. In  contrast, when it comes to doing reading for research on topics that interest people, those ages 18-29 are much more likely to do that daily (30%) than those who are 65 and older (14%).

If the reading is for work or school, it is not surprising that those under age 50 are more likely than those who are older to say they read for this purpose with the greatest frequency. Similarly, those with higher levels of education and income are more likely than others to read frequently for work or school. At the same time, it is notable that men (38%) are more likely than women (33%) to read almost daily for work or school.  Additionally, blacks (42%) are more likely than whites (34%) to read daily or almost daily for work or educational purposes.

Book consumption in any format: Print books still dominate, but e-books have a notable audience now and audiobooks have fans too

Book-reading habits have changed over time. In broad strokes, fewer people are reading books now than in 1978, but the data have fluctuated over time. The Gallup organization’s surveys of adults age 18 and older over the decades highlight those shifts. In the first Gallup survey in the summer of 1978, 12% of adults said they had not read a book in the previous 12 months or refused to answer a question about book reading.  That compares with 22% who told us they had not read a book in the previous 12 months or didn’t answer a book-reading question in December 2011. During the span of polling about book reading, the most dramatic shift occurred between the 1978 Gallup poll and a similar one in 1990, as the table below shows:

Book reading trends over time

Our question was somewhat different from Gallup’s in that we asked respondents whether they had read any books in the past 12 months in print, via audiobook, or an e-book. We also asked 16- and 17-year-olds. Some 78% of those 16 and older had read at least one book in any format in the previous 12 months, compared with 88% in the 1978 Gallup survey of adults. In our December survey, looking at the general population, 72% of Americans age 16 and older read at least one book in the past year in print; 16% read at least one e-book; 11% listened to at least one audiobook. The figures for adults 18 and older in that survey were the same, except it was 17% who had read an e-book.

When we re-asked the question of adults 18 and older in a survey from January 20-February 19, 2012, the number of readers of e-books in the previous year had increased to 21%.

A full description of the readers of e-books, the gadgets they use, and their habits is covered in Part 4 of this report.

In our December 2011 survey, women were more likely than men to have read a book in the previous 12 months. Those with college educations and higher household incomes were more likely to be book readers than less educated and less well-off people.  Hispanics who preferred to take the survey in Spanish were less likely than English speakers of all races to be book readers in the past year. Urban (80%) and suburban (80%) residents were more likely than rural residents (71%) to have read a book in the past year.

The overall number of book readers in various age cohorts also decreased by age: 82% of those ages 18-29 read a book in the past year, compared with 68% of those age 65 and older.

Book readers by age

Interestingly, though, the oldest readers are the most avid book consumers. The table below shows the average (mean) figure was 17 books that a typical American read in the past year. The median number (the midway point) was eight books. And those ages 65 and older who were readers had read the most books, on average.

How many books Americans read

The differences among readers

The distribution between frequent and less frequent readers was relatively even. Among those who had read a book in the past 12 months:

We divided these readers into three segments for a more detailed examination of who they are, their motives for reading, and their devices. Infrequent readers (31% of the population) are those who read between 1-5 books in the previous 12 months. Medium readers (29% of the population) are those who read between 6-20 books in the previous 12 months. Frequent readers (17% of the population) read 21 or more books in the previous 12 months.

Those with the greatest frequency of book reading are women, whites, and those with high levels of education.

Book reading patterns for different groups vary

In their technology profiles, these different categories of readers have somewhat different ownership and use levels. Medium and frequent readers are more likely than infrequent readers to own e-book readers. Medium readers are also a bit more likely than infrequent or frequent readers to be internet users, and slightly more likely to own cell phones.

In their reading habits, frequent readers are more likely than others to read for pleasure: 74% of frequent readers read for pleasure every day, compared with 43% of medium and 23% of infrequent readers who read for pleasure that often. Medium readers are more likely than others to read frequently for work or school. At the same time, frequent and medium readers are equally as likely to read every day to keep up with current events and to read for purposes of researching specific topics they are interested in.

Some 45% of book readers say they read a book in the past day – and the number of adults reading e-books on any given day has jumped dramatically since 2010

In our full sample from December 2011, including 16- and 17-year-olds, 45% of the book readers said they were reading the book the day before we contacted them in the survey. We often say that survey results like this present a picture of a “typical” or “average” day. If we only include those ages 18 and older in the sample, 44% of adults who read books  were reading a book on a typical day – a figure that has changed little from the figures collected among book readers by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press since 1994.10

Still, there has been a noteworthy change in the formats of the books being read on any given day.11 In June 2010, 95% of the book readers “yesterday” were reading print books and 4% were reading e-books. By December 2011 in our survey, 84% of the “yesterday” readers were reading print books and 15% were reading e-books. The shift toward e-book reading on a typical day is being driven by those who are college educated, those living in higher-income households, and those ages 30-49. Those groups disproportionately report they were reading e-books yesterday.

Book format used by readers on any given day is changing

The joy of reading

Asked to tell us what they like most about book reading, those who had read a book in the past 12 months gave a host of reasons that ranged from the highly practical to the sublime. Several strands of answers stood out: The joy of reading to people comes from entertainment, enjoyment, education, enrichment, escape, and the way it eases life in a stressful world. Overall, their answers broke down this way:

In their own words, respondents were eloquent and touching. One respondent noted: “I am an English teacher, so I read to save my sanity from grading essays.”

Those who talked about quiet entertainment tended toward phrases like “a stress-free escape,” “a nice way to relax,” “I read because it’s not work,” “diverting, entertaining and educational,” and “It draws me away from reality.” That was echoed by a respondent who said reading “takes you away, like a movie in your head.” One wryly said he liked reading “because it helps me with my temper and relaxes me.”  And another described the pleasure of “losing myself” in a book, while another said “it’s a good way to have an adventure.”

The joy of readingThose who talked about personal enrichment used phrases like “being able to experience so many times, places, and events.” Another said, “I love being exposed to ideas.” And another: “I look at it as a mind stimulant, and it is relaxing.” Others expressed pleasure at living a “life of the mind.”

For many, reading was a proud lifestyle choice: “It’s an alternate to TV that beats TV every time.” “Better than anything electronic.” “It’s better for me to imagine things in my head than watch them on TV.”

One compelling summary thought came from a respondent who declared: “I love being able to get outside myself.”

The audiophiles: A mini-portrait of those who listen to books

Some 11% of all Americans age 16 and older – or 14% of those who have read a book in the past year – consume audiobooks. It turns out that they like to consume books in all formats: 90% of them said they read at least one print book in the past 12 months and 39% said they consumed e-books. And they consume a lot of books. Audiobook listeners consumed an average (mean) of 25 books in all formats in the previous 12 months and a median (midpoint) of 12 books. Both figures are far higher than those who do not listen to books.  As book consumers, those who listen to books are more likely than non-audio consumers to read for pleasure, to read to do research on specific topics, and to read for work or school.

Demographically, audiobook listeners are more likely to have had at least some college education and to be the parent of a minor child. There are no differences across gender, age, and races. Audiobook listeners are much more likely to have technology in their lives – that is, use the internet, or be a tablet or e-book reader owner.

Non-book readers

A fifth of Americans (18%) said they had not read a book in the past year. This group is more likely to be: male than female (23% vs. 14%), Hispanic than white or black (28% vs. 17% and 16%), age 65 or older (27%), lacking a high school diploma (34%), living in households earning less than $30,000 (26%), unemployed (22%), and residents of rural areas 25%. Those who did not read a book last year also tended not to be technology users.

In addition, 18% of those 16 and older said they had physical or health conditions that made reading difficult or challenging. This group tilted toward older Americans: 25% of those over age 50 said they had such a physical or health issue; 27% of those who are unemployed said the same; and 29% of those in households earning $30,000 or less said so.

Interestingly, there was not substantial overlap among the non-book reading group and those who have health or physical conditions that made reading challenging. Just 25% of the non-book readers cited health-related issues for making reading difficult. And only 28% of those with health-related issues said they had not read a book in the past year.

Readers of news and newspapers; magazines and journals

In addition to asking respondents about their book-reading habits, we also asked people about other kinds of reading and found that 58% of those 16 and older say they regularly read news or a daily newspaper and 48% say they regularly read magazines and journals.

Tablet and e-book reader owners are much more likely than non-owners to do both types of reading. In addition, internet users and cell phone owners were more likely than non-users to read magazines and journals. Frequent book readers were also notably more likely than infrequent- or non-book readers to be news and magazine readers.

We followed up that general question with a query about whether those readers had read news or a daily newspaper “yesterday,” the day before we reached them in the survey. Some 75% of them said they did. On a “typical day” those more likely than others to be reading news are male, white, over age 30, college educated, living in a household earning more than $50,000, and e-book reader owners.

In addition, 46% of those who regularly read magazines and journals said they read that type of publication yesterday. On a “typical day” those more likely to be reading magazines and journals are over age 30 and college educated. Technology owners and users are no more likely than non-users to be reading magazines and journals.

Cite this publication: Lee Rainie, Kathryn Zickuhr, Kristen Purcell, Mary Madden and Joanna Brenner. “The rise of e-reading.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 4, 2012) http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/04/04/the-rise-of-e-reading/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. The latest figures were collected in a June 2010 survey. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Question wording for book readers was “There are different ways people read books these days. Yesterday, did you read a printed book, an electronic or digital book, or listen to an audiobook?” Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2010/09/12/section-3-news-attitudes-and-habits/
  2. Data in this paragraph is for adults age 18 and older.