More than 50% of adults have not finished a book in the last year

While many book lovers would find it difficult not to finish a book in the course of 365 days, this is the reality for more than half of American adults. In a new study by WordsRated, an international data and research group focused on reading and publishing, 48% of adults finished an entire book in the past year.

the Survey of American Reading Habits asked 2,003 American adults about their reading habits in the past year. This study was conducted as a means to offer a different perspective on reading than is normally offered through groups like PEW. Instead of defining reading as a broad spectrum of activities, WordsRated had two criteria: the book must be print or digital (i.e. no audiobooks, even though audiobooks are indeed reading) and the book must have been finished in its entirety.

Image of the generational breakdown of the respondents.

As seen above, the respondents included approximately 30% of the baby boomer generation, 25% of those considered to be Generation X, 34% of those considered to be Millennials, and 11% of those considered to be Generation Z. The three largest groups of adults were roughly the same.

Who has read a book in the last 12 months?

Chart showing the breakdown of who has finished a book in the last year.

While it’s certainly surprising to see that nearly 52% of respondents haven’t finished a book in the past year, 48% is still pretty impressive. The act of finishing a book as the definition of reading here definitely brings an entirely different perspective: how many of that 52% include people picking up a magazine or flipping through a cookbook or trying something and putting it aside? How many listen to audiobooks exclusively? Likewise, over the past year, the world has continued to see a global pandemic, ongoing racism and homo/transmission, war, and more.

The data also shows that a quarter of the same adults have not read a complete book in 1-2 years, while a further 11% have not read a book in 3-5 years.

A tenth of adults have not read a complete book in the last 10 years.

Reading Quantity Habits

If 1 in 10 adults has not read a book in the last ten years, what happens the other way around? How many books are those that are finishing at least one reading?

The good news is that readers who finish a book are 29 times more likely to read two or more complete books a year.

Graph of number of books finished in the last 12 months.

The graph above not only shows that those who read a book in its entirety are more likely to continue reading, but it also highlights something else: It is more common to start a book but not finish it than to never read a book. In fact, only 23% of adults surveyed never read, and again, this means a physical or electronic book, not another format. That is pretty Okay news!

Who reads more?

This particular study suggests that older generations read more than younger generations. The findings here align with what previous studies have noted that younger people are much more likely to consume audiobooks than print media. By defining reading so narrowly, the data also narrowly defines the habits of generations.

graph of generational breaks in the reading habit.

Boomers read the most books a year, with nearly 10 completed each year. Generation X reads about 6 a year, while Millennials read about 4 and Generation Z also about four. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that those in the demographic where retirement is an option have more time for leisure reading, while groups like those in their early working years or prime working years don’t spend the same time reading books (they are listening to audiobooks while traveling or feeding their kids or going for a walk or trying to get anything done while juggling many other responsibilities).

Millennials report starting, but not finishing, books at twice the rate of Boomers. Perhaps, too, Millennials recognize their limited time and don’t choose to spend it reading a book they don’t like.

Generational differences in the number of books read

Boomers may read a lot of books not only because of the time but also because they don’t use DNF and don’t consume as many audiobooks.

generational differences in numbers of books started but never finished

The number of non-readers declines across generations, suggesting that those who start a reading habit when they are younger maintain it as they get older. While it’s always possible to start a new habit, those who develop a love of reading in youth are more likely to continue it as they get older.

years since I read a book graph

What does that mean?

WordsRated Research It is interesting for several reasons. Not only does it limit its definition of reading in favor of older generations, which we know from previous research, but it also shows a difference in What different generations read. Younger readers are much more likely to put down a book they don’t like or that doesn’t work for them than older readers. While many might say it’s proof of inattention, it’s not: it’s worth time and energy.

In an era where younger generations are saddled with untold debts after following the advice of their parents, they now choose to spend their little free time by investing it in hobbies and activities that fill their cup to the brim. Younger generations are also those who don’t have as much free time, which means the time to read an entire print/electronic book is complicated by tasks most Boomers don’t have, like parenting. The younger generations are also much more diverse. and those marginalized populations lack free time at higher rates than their white middle-class peers.

Also, we know that audiobooks are popular with younger readers and that younger readers are also using their public libraries.

This research offers another interesting set of questions, including what do different generations read? That does not mean that some books are better or worse, valid or less valid than others. But it is more likely that younger generations continue to read for education, as opposed to leisure, and the investment of time is different.

The definition of reading has changed, as has the way generations interact with words. It’s okay to put down one book, it’s okay to start multiple books and never finish them, and it’s okay to get all of your reading through audiobooks.

Half the people finished an entire book last year, and frankly, that’s something to celebrate.

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