When book sales spiked in 2020 and 2021, publishers believed one reason for the increase was that more people had turned to reading during the pandemic, and they were hopeful that some of those people would continue to read when things returned to normal. However, a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts seems to dash those hopes.

The NEA’s “Arts Participation Patterns in 2022: Highlights from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” (SPPA) found that in the 12-month period prior to July 2022, only 48.5% of adults read one or more book for pleasure, down from 52.7% in 2017, when the NEA conducted its prior survey. The decline was greater than the drop between the NEA’s 2012 and 2017 surveys, when reading fell by just under two percentage points.

The decline in reading between 2017 and 2022 was nearly the same for men and women, and, as in previous years, more women than men read books last year (56.6% v. 40%). The report also found that fewer older readers reported reading a book in the 2021–2022 period than was the case five years earlier. The biggest decline came among 55-to-64-year-olds, where the percentage of those who had read a book fell from 53.6% in 2017 to 43.6%. The percentage of younger readers—those ages 18 to 34—who read at least one book for pleasure in the 12-month period held even.

Results were more discouraging when the report drilled down to look at adult reading patterns for novels and short stories. The study found that in the 2021–2022 span, the percentage of readers who read a novel or story fell to 37.6%, down four percentage points from 2017. Taking literature as a whole, which for the NEA includes novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, the decline in the share of men reading was more pronounced, down 5.7 percentage points from 2017, to 29.5%, while 49.2% of women read at least one piece of literature in 2022, down 3.3 percentage points from the previous study. “It is sobering to reflect that our stretches of isolation and self-quarantining were unaccompanied by a boom in reading novels or short stories,” the authors of the study wrote.

Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and analysis, echoed that sentiment, pointing out that the 37.6% participation rate in reading novels or short stories “was the lowest ever” since the surveys began in 1992. “It is pretty stark,” he said. “The persistent decline in fiction reading is worrisome, because we know how much reading can lead to broader types of cultural and civic participation, and also because reading builds imagination, empathy, close attention, and tolerance of ambiguity.”

While the percentage of adults who read poetry in 2022 fell from 2017, Iyengar was heartened by the fact that participation was higher in 2022 than in 2012. The big jump in poetry reading in 2017 was attributed in part to the popularity of Rupi Kaur and other poets who appealed to younger readers. Iyengar also noted that when combined with poetry readers who said they listened to poetry via streaming or other means, the adult participation rate rose to 11.5% in 2022.

The audio question was a new one for the SPPA, and 17.6% of adults said they had listened to novels or short stories via streaming or other means.

Fiction wasn’t the only category where adult participation fell between 2017 and 2022. In three of the four major nonfiction categories, the decline in reading took what the NEA calls a “significant decline.” In the biography and memoir category, the percentage of adults who read a book in the 12 months prior to July 2022 fell to 14.9%, from 20% in 2017. In history, 21.8% of adults read a book in the 2017 study period, compared to only 15.8% in 2022. And in the religion category (religious texts or books about religion or spirituality), 18.4% of adults reported reading a book in the 2022 survey period, down from 23% in 2017.

The only nonfiction category that saw readership rise was science (covering both books about science and technology), where participation increased from 12.9% in 2017 to 13.5% in 2022. It was also the only category of the four in which men had greater participation than women (14.9% v. 12.2%).

Another category that held up well in the recent period was graphic novels, where participation held even at 6.7% of all adults, with rates between men and women fairly even at 6.5% and 6.9%, respectively.

Like many in publishing, Iyengar thought long-form reading might have increased during the pandemic, but the results of the survey did not bear that out. He said it’s possible that book sales rose early in the pandemic even as the number of readers fell because those who read bought even more books than they previously did. The survey found that in 2022, a plurality of readers reported reading three books in the past year, up from two in 2017, supporting that theory.

Another survey finding was that the percentage of adults who said they watched or listened to content about books or writers fell to 13.6% in 2022, from 19.1% in 2017. At the same time, adults turned to new digital options to view art exhibits, concerts, and other cultural phenomena in meaningful ways during the pandemic. This suggested to Iyengar that even when trapped indoors, people still had access to an array of digital entertainment opportunities, which might have discouraged nonreaders from turning to books.

The total sample size of the 2022 SPPA was 40,718 adults, compared to 27,969 in 2017.