How many books do Americans read per year?

Since 2013, I started a conscious goal to read at least 12 books per year. I read a good amount of news, breaking and long form, and I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I wanted to commit myself to reading actual books, especially since I’d learned that as adulthood responsibilities really kick in, people tend to de-prioritize books… as depressing as that sounds. I’ve kept a running list of books read each year, and between 2013 and this year, I’ve met my goal all except two years. Last year, I read 18 books, which was my highest year since I started tracking, and this year, although we are not even through May yet, I’ve already read 11. Shelter in place, with no social life and no travel, has certainly enabled me to read more. I read across pretty much every medium: physical books, Kindle, and audio. I don’t necessarily read “current” books, but I read books that have been on a long “to-read” list, and then occasionally reprioritize books based on availability via NYPL/Libby, or what I just feel in the mood for.

I told my colleague yesterday that I’d read 11 books already, and she couldn’t believe how productive I’d been since quarantine began and commented on how much of a sloth she was next to me. She said she really only reads books during her vacations, which she takes maybe two per year. That made me wonder what the average number of books Americans read per year was. The last time I could find data on this from 2011, it looks like the average number of books read by Americans was about 12 per year. That sounds high, but that’s because averages cannot necessarily be trusted, as these are skewed by crazy outliers, like those who are retired and read 80 books a year, or overachievers like Bill Gates, who reads at least 50 books per year. So a better number to choose is the median number, which is actually four books read per year by the average American. That actually sounded higher than I thought, as I thought it would be around 2.

So I suppose my goal is “average,” but my actuals are far above the median. But then the next question is: how do we define “book,” and just because you listened to an audio book does not necessarily mean that you took anything away from it? I try not to continue reading any book beyond the 100-page point if I do not find it interesting since I think that at that point, if you haven’t gotten my attention, you are actually taking away my attention from other books that are likely better and better to me.

Books are a good escape. They’re a way to learn about topics and people and places that you don’t always get exposed to. I guess it’s no wonder I am reading so much more now than pre-quarantine since I cannot go anywhere and explore physically. The exploration now needs to be done virtually and via books.

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