Americans aren't reading less -- they're just reading less literature

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How many books did you read in 2015?
How many books did you read last year?
Condesign | Creative Commons

The percentage of American adults reading literature has hit a low of 43 percent, according to a study from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The decline is nothing new: There has been a downward trend since the NEA began collecting data in 1982. The percentage of literature readers rebounded briefly in 2008, but the latest numbers for 2015 indicate the slide is back.

The percentage of Americans reading literature
This study from the NEA shows the percentage of Americans reading literature decreased in 2015.
Courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts

The study defines "literature" as poetry, plays, short stories or novels — nonfiction is notably absent. (Heads up, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson and Simone de Beauvoir. You're not literature, apparently. Shuffle along now.) The study also filters out students and academics: It only counts reading not required for work or school.

From the study:

Women out-read men: Among literature readers, the gender gap is stark: Nearly 50 percent of women read literature in 2015, compared to just 36 percent of men.

Reading by race: Half of white adults read literature in 2015, compared to 29 percent of black adults and 27 percent of Hispanic adults.

Don't blame the young: As much as people love to blame millennials for any downward trend, the data doesn't fly here. Forty-two percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 read literature last year. The most avid reading group was aged 65 to 74, at 49 percent. The lowest percentage was for those aged 75 and older: 38 percent. (Since the study doesn't include audio books, it could be overlooking sight issues for older readers.)

Education is the strongest factor: The higher the level of education, the more likely the reader. Sixty-eight percent of adults with a graduate degree read literature in 2015, compared with 59 percent of college graduates and 46 percent of those with some college education. Thirty percent of those with only a high school degree read literature last year.

A Pew study on America's reading habits
A Pew study on America's reading habits shows that 73 percent of the country read a book this year.
Courtesy of the Pew Research Center

The NEA data is best paired with recent another study, this one from the Pew Research Center, which doesn't sort nonfiction out of literature. According to the September Pew study, 73 percent of Americans report that they read at least one book — any book — this year. Pew's data also shows that America's consumption of books has remained roughly steady from 2012 to present.

Viewed together, the studies show a decline in interest around fiction, poetry and plays, but a steady interest in reading in general.

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