Re-ignite Reading | Editorial

If you're seeing this, chances are you’re someone who identifies as a reader. And, as a reader, you may be shocked to discover that there are many American adults who just aren’t.

Fewer than half of American adults are readers

Hallie Rich head shotIf you're seeing this, chances are you’re someone who identifies as a reader. And, as a reader, you may be shocked to discover that there are many American adults who just aren’t.

In the recently released report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “Arts Participation Patterns in 2022: Highlights from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” (SPPA), only 48.5 percent of adults—fewer than half!—reported reading one or more books for pleasure in the past year. That’s down from 52.7 percent in 2017 and 54.6 percent in 2012, or an 11 percent drop over the past decade. What’s more, only 37.6 percent of respondents reported reading novels or short stories in 2022, the lowest participation rate recorded in the past 30 years.

Some might easily (and grouchily) blame this decline on younger generations’ consumption of other forms of media—those damn kids and their TikToks, right? Not so fast. While Gen Z and Millennials are busy with BookTok, the greatest losses in readers were seen among those ages 55 and up. This is a particularly worrisome trend, as senior populations are at increased risk for loneliness and cognitive decline—two conditions for which reading has proven benefits. So, what’s going on here?

The answer certainly isn’t a lack of quality material. LJ’s 2023 Best Books issue celebrates great titles published across genres and in different formats that are worthy of any reader’s (or non-reader’s) time. The rise in book sales at the height of the pandemic gave hope for a reading revolution even among those who hadn’t previously identified as readers; yet the SPPA results suggest that we’re actually losing ground with readers, and something is changing about the activities Americans value most.

Digging deeper, we must unpack the factors driving this shift in behavior. LJ readers understand better than most that libraries are lots of things to lots of people, but for many our business is books. To see a sharp decline in reading is both puzzling and disconcerting.

Rather than wring our hands over this news, let’s reframe it in terms of opportunity—to consider how the library community can better help the public (to borrow a phrase from my home library system) reconnect with reading.

Making books a primary topic of conversation is a great place to start. Elevating reading through irresistible book displays, creative library reading programs, and regularly sharing our “currently reading” lists on social media can put books front and center. We also need to find more ways to meet people who aren’t library regulars by getting outside of our buildings. As Neal Wyatt, LJ’s Reviews Editor, reminds me: Non-readers are the people who just haven’t yet found their book. The same could be true for lapsed readers—maybe they need extra help finding their next great read. That’s work we most certainly can do.

As we head into the New Year, let’s make “more readers reading more” our mantra. We recognize that reading makes us more empathetic and compassionate—there’s even a 2016 study that says reading books reduces mortality rates. Nurturing a reading culture is an important part of our profession’s role in society.

Book bans and censorship have dominated much of the library conversation in 2023, but working to keep books available to all doesn’t do much good if no one actually reads them. Ray Bradbury warned that “there is more than one way to burn a book,” and a public apathetic to reading is akin to a lit match.

For me, books are a way of connecting with others. I can start talking books with my dad when we butt heads over politics; I made a new mom friend at my son’s elementary school when I noticed she was carrying one of my favorite reads from this year (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy, btw). For all the big important reasons why we need readers in this world, it also feels very personal to me (and maybe you, too?)—I want to be surrounded by people who are ready to answer my favorite question: So, what are you reading?

Author Image
Hallie Rich

Hallie Rich

Hallie Rich is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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