A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts found that reading for pleasure fell slightly between 2012 and 2017. According to the report, “U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002–2017,” the percentage of adults 18 and older who read any book that wasn’t for work or school in 2017 was 52.7%, compared to 54.6% in 2012 and 54.3% in 2008. In 2002, the percentage of adults who read a book for pleasure was 56.6%. (All results are based on what, if any, books adults read in the 12 months prior to taking part in the survey, which was conducted in July 2017.)
The NEA did not go into detail about the recent reading trends, noting that the brief report (12 pages) is intended to provide a “statistical snapshot of the critical elements of arts participation,” adding that a forthcoming research report will address the topic of reading in more detail.
In addition to discussing reading trends, the new report found that 53.8% of adults attended a visual or performing arts event at least once in 2017, up from 50.2% in 2012.
While not going into detail on reading, the new report does provide some breakdown on who is reading what. In what is likely the biggest surprise among its findings, the percentage of adults reading poetry rose between 2012 and 2017, marking the first time poetry reading has increased in the history of the NEA’s survey of participation in the arts. In 2017, 11.7% of adults said they read some poetry in the prior year, up from 6.7% in 2012. And although the report does not list reasons why interest in poetry rose, it does give some evidence that the boom in interest in Instagram poets such as Rupi Kaur is an important factor in the increase. The report found that between 2012 and 2017, the share of adults ages 18–24 who read poetry more than doubled, placing that age group above all others when it comes to poetry reading rates. The report also found that nonwhite groups, including African-Americans and Asian-Americans, read poetry at the highest rates overall.
The news was not as good for the percentage of adults who read novels or short stories. The report found that 41.8% of adults read a novel or short story in the year prior to July 2017, down from 45.2% in 2012 and from 47% in 2008. Between 2012 and 2017, the report found, the declines in novel and short story reading were mainly among women, African-Americans, and adults ages 18–24. The NEA finding tracks closely to recent sales figures from the Association of American Publishers, which show that fiction sales have fallen about 17% between 2013 and 2018.
Plays continue to be lightly read by Americans, but their popularity showed a slight increase between 2012 and 2017, rising from 2.9% to 3.7%.
The survey also asked adults about selected types of books they read, as well as formats. In terms of the latter, 23.3% of all adults said they read a book in digital format in 2017, while 16.5% reported that they listened to an audiobook. Twenty-three percent of adults said they read a religion text in the 12 months prior to July 2017, 21.8% said they read history, and 20% said they read biographies.
Results of the survey—called the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts—are based on responses from 27,969 adults.