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Way more Americans read books than you think

AP Photo/Charles Sykes
Granted, a lot of those books are by authors like Snooki.
By Christopher Mims
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s a famous scene in the 1976 film Network in which a disgruntled television newscaster rants about what’s wrong with the American public—including the assertion that fewer than 3% of Americans read a book in the past year. Network is satire, of course, but the persistent cultural myth this line represents turns out to be wildly inaccurate.

Here, from a just-released survey of a “representative sample” of 1,005 American adults conducted by Pew, are the real numbers: three quarters of Americans read a book in the past year.

And while the proportion of Americans who read a book in any format has held pretty steady, the proportion who have read an ebook is up by 11 points since 2014. What this chart doesn’t show is that only 4% of books read are “ebook only,” so it’s too early to say whether ebook sales take away from print sales or add to reading overall.

What’s more, Americans who read are reading more than you might expect. The median number of books read by an American who finished a book in the past year was 5, and the average was 12—clearly, there are some voracious readers at the high end.

Where Americans are reading these books may surprise you. Nearly one in three American ebook readers read an ebook on their cellphone.

And younger readers are especially fond of ebooks—47% of those who read any book read an ebook in the past year.

It’s easy to be cynical about what our devices are doing to literacy, but the fact that every screen most people own can now be used to display a book surely represents a kind of progress. Of course, what these figures don’t tell us is what kinds of books they’re reading.

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