That Reading Statistics Meme Is Just Wrong

Categories: Personal
Comments: 6 Comments
Published on: 2017.01.07

The meme in question.

This cute little chart popped up on social media recently. I saw it from at least three different people, on at least three different platforms (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). It makes the following claims, without citing a source:

• 33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives
• 42% of college grads never read another book after college
• 57% of new books are not read to completion
• 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years
• 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
• The more a child reads, the likelier they are to understand the emotions of others

The arrows on the image seem to indicate that one fact leads to another, or perhaps that each statistic builds upon the previous one. Or maybe they just mean: “read it in this order”. Regardless, my “bullshit meter” was alerted quickly here. The first two statistics seem reasonable enough, if somewhat worrisome. The third one was vague and pointless (does it matter what percentage of new books are “read to completion”?) But the last three blocks of text each set off alarms in my brain.

Let’s start with the last one. What does it even mean? Apparently, the claim comes from a series of studies (mentioned here) which “found that the process of imagining scenes while reading led to an increase in empathy and pro-social behavior”. However, it turns out that narrative fiction was the key here, not books. Studies showed the exact same effect on people who watched fictional drama TV shows, movies, and even video games.

In other words, the entire point of the meme fails, because whoever made it lied about the final point — or didn’t understand the study they’d heard about.

Still, we can all think of good reasons to read books, fictional or not.

What about the list of statistics? One of the first “smell tests” a claim needs to pass (besides “did it cite a source?”) is “does it seem reasonable?” Several of these did not seem reasonable to me — especially the “80%” one — so I went looking for sources.

I found these same numbers regurgitated on multiple websites, but most of them didn’t cite a source either. I finally found an entry on Mental Floss that cites “a 2003 survey conducted by a company called The Jenkins Group”. Then I found other sites using the same stats and citing the same source, but not one of them linked to the study, nor could I find the study itself published anywhere.

So I apply Hitchen’s razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. Especially if the claim is startling.

Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year? That’s absurd, without evidence to back it up. Seventy percent of U.S. adults haven’t been in a book store in five years? Also absurd, especially considering it means nothing in a day and age when books can be purchased anywhere. My city of 130,000 people doesn’t even have a bookstore, but you can buy books in Walmart, Target, and any number of other stores, not to mention the largest bookseller in the world: Amazon.

Fifty-seven percent of new books aren’t read “to completion”? Of course, many books aren’t meant to be read “to completion”, including reference books, cookbooks, and even many textbooks. A bunch of other ones probably aren’t worth reading all the way through.

As for the first two statistics, they seem backward. Typically, someone who completes college is more likely to be a habitual reader than someone who only completes high school, yet the “Jenkins Group” study has it the other way around.

There are, however, some real numbers to look at. The National Endowment for the Arts’ 2004 study (.pdf, 3.3MB) indeed shows that fewer people (both children and adults) are reading on a regular basis, fewer of them are reading for pleasure, and fewer are reading “literature”. Annual spending on books, which had remained stead for some time, plummeted in the late 1990s and has remained low. (Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s about the same time that household internet connections became commonplace.)

As for actual figures, the NEA found that only 57% of U.S. adults had read a book, but the question included “this year”. No part of the study indicated a group that would never read another book for the rest of their lives, as claimed by the meme pictured above. And it showed that the likelihood of reading increased with age (until after 75), and with education level (directly contradicting the meme).

So, if 57% of American individuals have read a book within the past year, then the “80%” claim in the meme is clearly bunk.

Further note that this meme popped up in late 2016 and early 2017, while all the data is (apparently) from a 2003 study, and all the numbers I cite from the NEA are from 2002-2004. None of these figures are from the current decade.

The most recent numbers I could find, from the most reputable organization, was this Pew report from 2014. According to it, 76% of U.S. adults read at least one book in the preceding 12 months. Among college graduates, 88% read at least one book in the preceding 12 months. Very few demographic groups dipped below 70%.

Additionally, most of the data seems to be about books, not about reading. Everyone I know reads every day. A few stick to newspapers or news websites. Others are indeed reading books. Almost every one I know reads at least something on social media — or elsewhere on the internet — every day. Most people I know who work for a living read constantly throughout the day as part of their jobs.

6 Comments
  1. Sherry says:

    Well written, well analyzed.

  2. Can I have some fun here?

    • 66% of high school graduates enjoy reading as a hobby
    • 58% of college grads are voracious readers
    • 43% of new books are read to cover to cover
    • 30% of U.S. adults have found a bookstore to visit in the last five years
    • 20% of U.S. families bought or read a book together last year

    The weirdest thing about this meme to me is that none of the stats supplied have anything to do with a child’s reading habits.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “The weirdest thing about this meme to me is that none of the stats supplied have anything to do with a child’s reading habits.”

      Excellent. That’s probably the biggest point here, and I missed it. Thank you for noticing and mentioning it.

      As for the others, yes, the stats don’t look so bad if you look at them that way. Using the actual, true statistics that I mentioned above, from the Pew study, it looks even better. :-)

  3. Dana says:

    What about libraries? And listening to audio books isn’t technically reading but you’re still following a narrative…

    (Thanks for reminding me why I’m not on social media. I don’t mind that I never see any of this pap.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Dana, I consider it my sacred duty to remain on social media so I can debunk these memes. LOL.

      And yes, libraries are a huge thing too. At least 50% of my wife’s reading material (and she reads three or four books per WEEK) is from the library. About half my children’s reading material is from the library too.

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