Your Assumptions About Reading Are Wrong

Reading Rates

We all know that no one reads books any more, right? It’s because of the internet, and twitter, and Justin Bieber, I think.  The argument for this was summed up by Nicholas Carr in his article Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

You can see it in these stats too – this is data from Gallup showing how many people answer “yes” to the question “Are you currently reading any books or novels at present?”

Reading Rates


That shows a clear decline, right?  Well, no.  Take a look at the dates on the bottom – for some weird reason, the run from now backwards.  So this isn’t a decline in reading, it’s actually a big increase.

You can see the another take on this in data released this week by Pew. The numbers are higher than the ones from Gallup because this shows readers in the past year, not in the moment.  And again, the numbers have shot up from what they were 60 years ago, when the average was around 40%:

Pew Reading Stats


We’re reading more than ever.

If you add in the amount of reading that we’re doing on the internet, the stuff that Carr blames for his drop in attention, then we’re reading LOTS more than ever.


In part, because of education.  Reading rates are strongly tied to the percentage of the adult population that has some degree beyond high school.  This number has climbed consistently since the middle of the 20th century.

Another part of the story is that for the first time in history, lots of kids and teenagers are voluntarily reading books.  That is Harry Potter and The Hunger Games at work.

I was surprised when I first saw these stats, because even though I’m reading more than ever personally, the narrative that Carr and others are putting forward makes some sense.  And we can have a discussion about whether or not the quality of books being read has gone down.  It probably has, but mainly because so many more people are reading!  You always get that when an activity jumps from a niche to the mainstream.

Who wouldn’t be surprised by these stats?

  • Amazon:  they’ve made a ton of money selling books of all kinds.  A big percentage of the eBooks in the Pew data will have come through Amazon.  Not only did they come up the Kindle, they also made Kindle for iPhone, Kindle for Android, Kindle for tablets.  By making it much easier to read books anywhere, they’ve sold a whole lot of books.
  • The Strand:  the best second-hand bookstore in the world (or, at least, my favourite) had their best sales day in history this Christmas.  As many stores selling physical books have gone out of business, The Strand has succeeded by innovating their business model.  They provide a great in-store experience, lots of events, and lots of books that are really hard to find anywhere else.
  • Writers: one of the reasons that the number of readers has been increasing is that the number of books has gone through the roof.  As the barriers to publication drop to nothing, it is easier than ever to publish a book.  While this results in a lot of crap, it also means that no matter how obscure your interests, it is also easier than ever to find something to read about them.

The common thread here is that the people and firms that have been winning in the book business these days are the ones that somehow found a way to avoid the assumption that no one is reading any more.  What other opportunities does this open up?

As Mark Twain said:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Avoiding false assumptions provides a big innovation opportunity.  What do you know for sure that just ain’t so?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

17 thoughts on “Your Assumptions About Reading Are Wrong

  1. Hi Tim: I agree with your main thesis that our core assumptions about reading trends are wrong. I also agree with your umbrella thesis that it is easy to make sweeping over generalizations, especially in the absence of hard data. I do however, believe (no data to support my point) that America (in particular) keeps dumbing down. So, in whatever formats it consumes its entertainment, be it movies, books, blogs…the general trend of content is continually catering to less discerning audiences and challenging them less. Even if more people are reading books, the mental nutrition they get from them is falling. Again, just a guess on my part. Keep up the good work, Tim.

    • Thanks for the comment Michael. It’s a very interesting question. I’ve got no real data on it, so it’s hard to answer for certain. I can think of two points though. One is that when books are only being read by “book people”, then the quality of books being read will always be higher than when books are being read by “everyone.” It’s unavoidable.

      That said, when I was young, I was pretty much the only person I knew that read regularly. The idea that we could have something like the Harry Potter series, where a really high percentage of kids ended up reading it, would have been unthinkable. So I’ll be very interested to see what happens when that generation hits adulthood. Will it lead to people reading better/more books? I suspect so. But it will be interesting to watch.

      • “The idea that we could have something like the Harry Potter series, where a really high percentage of kids ended up reading it, would have been unthinkable. ”
        Though when I was younger, it was the Famous Five that was being avidly read … perhaps not quite as widely as Harry Potter, as there was really only word of mouth to encourage others to read it. (That, and the fact schools didn’t “approve” hence it was “bad” & thus good to read!)

        • In the US when I was a kid, the only things I can think of that came close were close were the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew series. But they still weren’t that widely read…

  2. Tim, I totally agree with the notion of noticing our assumptions. I am very concerned about the generalizations that are being made on the use of technology, social media and so on.
    I teach a master’s class — despite the talk of how digital everything is going, I noticed that just 3 of 36 students used a computer during the class. This prompted a wide conversation. The basic theme is that it is faster and easier to make notes and then review them in an old fashioned note book. A number commented that many students who use a computer are, in fact, not engaged in the class. They are busy doing something else.
    I also asked if they want more on-line resources….the answer was no. They did want better quality teaching — as one student said, “That’s what we pay for…..”
    Go to any stationery store near a university and you will see thousand of notes books being sold and used by students.
    One store manager also told me that they are selling more paper based 12-month planning calendars. He said many managers or executives tried to use a digital version but found it less effective than a good planing journal. .
    I have also talked to some students about digital text books. I would say that there are a lot of 20-25 year olds who are not keen on digital text books as they can be slow to work with. Unlike a basic fiction book, a text book is often used by going back and forth between chapters and notes you make. This is not easy in digital format.
    Searching is very easy but scanning a chapter or several pages is much harder.
    I once read some interesting research on business books……about 90 percent of people who buy a business book do not read past the first chapter……

    • “I would say that there are a lot of 20-25 year olds who are not keen on digital text books as they can be slow to work with. Unlike a basic fiction book, a text book is often used by going back and forth between chapters and notes you make. ”
      The counter to that, is, of course, that it can be easier to search (electronically) a text book to find a particular section – especially if it’s the type of book that you want to look up factiods, rather than read long sections.

  3. Tim,
    Interesting statistics. . . .That being said, I do wish that I would be “surveyed” just once on this topic so my vote could count. I read on “for fun” on a variety of devices but more typically, my hard reading for work is done on a laptop or a hard copy so that I can still literally mark up the text with post its, etc!

    Thanks for pointing out the labels in the graph. It would have been very easy to gloss over the labels and “assume” that I knew what the data was saying!

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