The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low

The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year, the figure was about 19 percent.

That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.

Reading declines are higher among men. The share of men reading for pleasure on any given day fell from 25 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2017, a drop of nearly 40 percent. The decline among women was a more modest 29 percent, from 31 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2017.

The survey data shows declines in leisure reading across all age levels. Percentage-wise, the likelihood of reading declined the most among Americans ages 35 to 44, with smaller declines for both younger and older age groups.

The American Time Use Survey is based on a nationally representative sample of about 26,000 individuals. Respondents answer questions and fill out detailed time diaries about how they spent the previous day. The large sample size means the survey's time-use estimates are extremely precise relative to traditional phone surveys, which may involve only 1,000 people or fewer.

The findings on reading comport with some other recent data on American reading trends. Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015.

Survey data from the Pew Research Center and Gallup have shown, meanwhile, that the share of adults not reading any book in a given year nearly tripled between 1978 and 2014.

It's tempting to blame the decline on the recent proliferation of computers, cellphones, video games and the like. But the data don't really bear that out. For one, the NEA data show that reading has been on the wane since at least the 1980s, well before the advent of Facebook and Fortnite.

A long-term study of reading trends in the Netherlands points to a different culprit: television. From 1955 to 1995, TV time exploded while weekly reading time declined. “Competition from television turned out to be the most evident cause of the decline in reading,” the authors of that study concluded.

In the United States, the American Time Use Survey shows that while the average reading time fell between 2004 and 2017, the average amount of time watching TV rose.

In 2017, the average American spent more than 2 hours 45 minutes per day watching TV, every day of the year, or nearly 10 times the amount of time they devoted to reading for pleasure.