Good News: We’re Reading More Books!

The Atlantic (“The Next Time Someone Says the Internet Killed Reading Books, Show Them This Chart”) attempts to disabuse its readers of a halcyon era (“pre-Internet”) in which people read more books …

“Well, that time never existed. Check out these stats from Gallup surveys. In 1957, not even a quarter of Americans were reading a book or novel. By 2005, that number had shot up to 47 percent. I couldn’t find a more recent number, but I think it’s fair to say that reading probably hasn’t declined to the horrific levels of the 1950s.”

All this to say: our collective memory of past is astoundingly inaccurate. Not only has the number of people reading not declined precipitously, it’s actually gone up since the perceived golden age of American letters.”

Fair enough. I can think of several better ways than “are you reading any books?” to ask what we’re most interested in, but the historical trend is still interesting.

Naturally, there are caveats aplenty. For example —

“1) This chart does not establish that high-quality literature readers have increased. That is true. 2) There are a lot of factors that go into these numbers and variables that are unaccounted for. 3) The big spike is partially driven by higher levels of higher education attainment. 4) Perhaps the quality of books has fallen, even as the number of readers has grown.”

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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