Almost Half the Adult Population Reads Books

I’m working on a presentation on how Gender roles and Creative writing work together.  When I was working on this, I found some fascinating statistics. The stats are from “Reading on the Rise,” the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Report.  Yes, it came out in 2008, but that was only four years ago.  I doubt anything has changed since then.  If you want the full report, it’s here. 

37.6% of men read literature. 55.1% of women read literature. Nearly half (47%) of all adults read fiction (novel or a short story) in 2008. The number of Adults who read literature in 2008: 112.8 million. According to the survey, the absolute number of literary readers was the highest in the survey’s history.

These numbers are important because they are much higher than I ever thought, and it is actually optimistic.  People do read.  A lot of people read a lot. I’ve always felt that I was in this small little clan, where we had this knowledge and only a select group was willing or able to take part in it.  It turns out that I’m not in a private party, but a very public party where everyone is hanging out, drinking and being awesome and I’m just in this little room with the extremely dorky people with the special reserve whiskey and we are talking shit about all the other people at the party, making fun of their clothes, saying that their shoes are lame, constantly amping ourselves up to make ourselves feel better by laughing at people that like the same party atmosphere, but lack our sophistication.

I tried to use a party metaphor to explain how I look at reading.  Instead, I accidently described what I actually do when I go to parties.  Let me try again.

I thought a lot of people didn’t read.  It turns out they do. 

If this many people are reading, the literary world should be more aggressive about finding and cultivating new talent.  Instead, publishing houses push to find what will sell.  Selling books and publishing quality books isn’t the same thing.  I’m not saying this out of some bitter resentment.  “Why wasn’t my book published, blah, blah, blah.”  I never wrote anything that could be published on a massive scale, and have spent most of my time since grad school learning how to teach.  No, this comes from actually going to a bookstore and looking at the shelves.  I can’t remember the last time I saw something new written by a new writer.  When I do hear about it, it’s this weird success story where someone self published and then the book industry took a chance.  The music industry was, and might still be, in the same boat.  You had to sell a million albums before you got a record deal. That seems strange to me.  If a hundred million people are reading books, shouldn’t that be more of a reason to play the risky game and publish anything and everything?  With the advent of the digital kindle monster, shouldn’t publishing houses publish pretty much any book that is well written and has potential?  What’s the over/under of publishing a book in a digital format?  It can’t be enough to make publishers risk-adverse.

There is also the myth that people who read are rarities, so we should all read the same thing so that we can have similar conversations.  Book clubs are notorious for this, but it’s also a strange event that will occur on an individual level.  This was one of the main problems I had with college. We could read whatever we wanted, on top of the required readings. But there was a sense that you had to read certain “Hot” books, so that, when asked about said book, you sounded intelligent and/or contemporary.  This might just be my hang up, and I could be extending it out to the rest of you. But one of the worst parts of my summer in 2008 was reading “The Corrections.”  Half way through it, I put it down and read The Marx-Engels reader, and was better for it.  We get caught up in this cycle of reading the same thing, or books similar to each other.  That probably answers the question of why publishers are so risk-adverse.  Why try a new property when readers obviously are just fine with the old property?

I dislike domestication, group-think, same-speak and any form of gang mentality.  There is much to be said about wanting to share books that you enjoy.  There’s also something to be said about reading what you want, having a well-rounded literary palate and venturing to new territories.  I believe in the classics.  I also believe, with this many people reading, the world of good literature has plenty of room to grow.

And don’t get me started about why men dominate an industry where women dominate the market. That’s for another blog post.

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2 thoughts on “Almost Half the Adult Population Reads Books

  1. Great post – it is definitely uplifting to know that so many people are reading. You’re right that what will sell is not what is great literature (case in point: “Twilight”). With more and more digital books I expect to see some kind of change in the way books are selected for publication. Digital books seem like such a low risk way to get material out there. I’m excited for that potential, and yet the publishing industry doesn’t seemed to have changed much yet.

    I’m interested in your later post on why men dominate an industry where women dominate the market – I hope you get around to writing it soon.

    Nice new layout, by the way.

  2. The publishing industry hasn’t changed much at all, sadly. They’ll be a HUGE post on Gender and Writing next week.

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