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Over 50% of Adults Have Not Finished a Book in the Last Year

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

While many book lovers would find it hard to not finish a book over the course of 365 days, this is the reality of over half of US adults. In a new study conducted by WordsRated, an international research and data group focused on reading and the publishing world, 48% of adults finished a whole book in the last year.

The American Reading Habits survey asked 2,003 American adults about their reading habits over the last year. This study was done as a means of offering a different perspective on reading than what’s typically offered via groups like PEW. Rather than define reading as a broad spectrum of activities, WordsRated had two criteria: the book must be print or digital (aka: no audiobooks, despite the fact audiobooks are indeed reading) and the book must have been finished in whole.

Image of generational breakdown of those surveyed.

As seen above, those surveyed included roughly 30% of those in the baby boomer generation, 25% of those considered generation x, 34% of those considered millennial, and 11% of those considered generation z. The three largest groups of adults were roughly equal.

Who Has Read a Book in the Past 12 Months?

Graphic featuring the breakdown of who has finished a book in the last year.

While it is certainly surprising to see that nearly 52% of those polled did not finish a book in the last year, that 48% did is still pretty impressive. The act of finishing a book as the definition of reading here definitely gives a wholly different perspective–how many of those 52% include people who pick up a magazine or flip through a cookbook or try something and set it aside? How many listen to audiobooks exclusively? Likewise, over the last year, the world has continued to see a global pandemic, continued racism and homo/transmisia, a war, and more.

The data also show that a quarter of the same adults have not read a full book in 1 or 2 years, while 11% more have not read a book in 3-5 years.

A tenth of adults have not read a full book in the last 10 years.

Reading Quantity Habits

If 1 out of 10 adults has not read a book in the last ten years, then what about the reverse? How many books are those who are finishing at least one reading?

The good news is that readers who finish one book are 29 times more likely to read two or more full books a year.

Chart of number of books finished in past 12 months.

The above chart not only shows that those who read a full book are more likely to keep reading, but it also highlights something else: it is more common to start but not finish a book than it is to never read a book. In fact, only 23% of adults surveyed never read–and again, this means a physical or electronic book, not another format. That’s pretty good news!

Who Reads More?

This particular study suggests that older generations read more than younger generations. The findings here align with what previous studies have noted that younger people are far more likely to consume audiobooks than print media. By defining reading so narrowly, the data also narrowly define the habits of generations.

chart of generational reading habit breakdowns.

Boomers read the most books annually, at almost 10 completed each year. Generation X reads roughly 6 a year, while Millennials read about 4 and Generation Z also about four. It should not be a big surprise that those in the demographic where retirement is an option that there is more time for leisure reading while groups like those in their early or prime work years are not spending the same time reading books (they’re listening to audiobooks while they commute or feed their kids or go for a walk or try to do anything while juggling multiple other responsibilities).

Millennials report they start–but don’t finish–books at a rate double Boomers. Perhaps, too, Millennials recognize their limited time and don’t elect to spend it reading a book they don’t like.

Generational differences in quantity of books read

It’s possible Boomers read a lot of books not only because of time but also because they don’t utilize the DNF and don’t consume as many audiobooks.

generational differences in started but never finished book numbers

The number of nonreaders decreases across the generations, suggesting that those who begin a reading habit while younger maintain it as they age. While it’s always possible to begin a new habit, those who develop a love for reading young are most likely to continue as they grow.

years since reading a book graphic

What Does It Mean?

WordsRated’s research is interesting for several reasons. Not only does it limit its definition of reading in favor of older generations, which we know from prior research, but it also shows a difference in how different generations read. Younger readers are much more willing to quit a book that they don’t like or that isn’t working for them than older readers. While many might say that’s proof of a lack of attention, it’s not: it’s a value on time and energy.

In an era where younger generations are saddled with untold debt after following the advice of their parents, they’re now choosing to spend their small chunks of free time invested in hobbies and activities that fill up their cup wholly. Younger generations are also those without as much leisure time, meaning time to read a whole print/electronic book is complicated by tasks off most Boomer’s plates like childrearing. Younger generations are also far more diverse and those marginalized populations lack free time at higher rates than their white middle class peers.

Moreover, we know that audiobooks are popular with younger readers and that younger readers are also utilizing their public libraries.

This research offers another interesting set of questions, including what are the different generations reading? That’s not to say that some books are better or worse, valid or less valid than others. But chances are the youngest generations may still be reading for education, as opposed to leisure, and the time investment is different.

The definition of reading has changed, and so, too, has the way generations engage with words. It is okay to quit a book, it is okay to start several books and never finish them, and it’s okay to get all your reading via audiobooks.

Half of people finished a whole book last year, and frankly, that’s something to celebrate.