But first, the polling. The Gallup poll ran from Dec. 1-16, 2021. The poll asked people how many books they read in the past year, including books they finished and read “part of the way” through. Interestingly, respondents can include printed books, audiobooks, and e-books in their responses.
Some 17% of respondents said they did not read any books, while 27% said they read 10 or more. That 27% is a reduction from previous years; for example, 35% of respondents in 2016 said they read at least 10 books. College graduates read an average of about 21 books per year based on polls between 2002 and 2016, but in the most recent version, they read an average of 15. People over the age of 55 used to read an average of 16 books per year, and in this polling, that number was reduced to 12. Women read an average of 19 books (at times, more than double the amount read by men), which has since dropped to 15. Men’s stayed about the same, dropping from 10 to 9 books.
In short: The big-picture drop is because respondents who do read are reading less, not because fewer folks are reading at all.
Why? We don’t know for sure. It is possible people are feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic and reluctant to have a distraction. It’s possible library closures have resulted in people having less access to books or quiet, accessible spaces to read or listen. It’s possible families lack child care and thus have less free and quiet time to enjoy books. It is possible people are experiencing symptoms like brain fog or depression (perhaps related to long-haul COVID-19) and are legitimately unable to focus as they once did.
I don’t consistently track the number of books I read, but I can safely estimate it’s about 60 books per year, in addition to reading short stories, articles, and essays online. How? As a foundation, I sincerely love to read and have since I was a kid. I can read in silence or with background noise, in the morning or night, at home or on the bus. I love reading and talking about books and writing and reading reviews. I look up author interviews for fun. This isn’t to pat myself on the back, but to say that I don’t have a challenge in making time to read because I sincerely love it. I don’t make time for plenty of things people do—like daily yoga or meal prepping or playing a team sport—primarily because I don’t enjoy those things. None of these activities is “better” than the other.
I also don’t have children and am not a caretaker. I work full time and remotely. The pandemic is stressful for me, yes, but I am deeply privileged, and that has to help.
All of this said, if you want to read more, I do have some tips.
First of all, read whatever you want. I understand the Gallup polling focuses on books, but I like to extend reading “challenges” to whatever you want it to be—a short story a day, a poem in the morning, or a few paragraphs of a long-form article while you drink your coffee. You can think, reflect, or save the rest for another part of the day or another day entirely. In fact, sometimes slowing down and really letting your mind work through a piece is more gratifying and stimulating than rushing through just to say it’s done.
Turning off notifications on your phone/email/etc. can be helpful, too, even if only for a few minutes at a time. In a period when many of us spend serious time in front of our screens, it can become a habit to click around and take in all sorts of stimulations—pausing a show you’re streaming to check Twitter, for example, or bouncing been writing an email and watching videos on TikTok. This frequent bouncing between multiple genres of content sometimes results in brain fog or in other words “memory loss” that vanish the brightest idea! Giving yourself even 15 minutes to sit with your reading can be a nice start to “trick” your brain into that sort of focus.
Lastly, I think finding a place to process and review what you’re reading can be helpful and motivating. Whether that’s creating an account on a website like GoodReads, making an Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok dedicated to book reviews, or just organizing a low-key virtual book club, knowing that your thoughts and impressions will be shared with others can be motivating in itself.
But above all else: Be gentle with yourself. Reading is fantastic for your brain, and I find it deeply enjoyable, but it’s a global pandemic. If you can’t take on a new hobby, or can’t give an activity as much time as you’d like, remember it’s not your fault we’re surviving a public health crisis in a capitalist hellscape. Read, yes, but don’t punish yourself over it.
Do you keep track of how much you read per year? Do you have any favorite books you’d like to share, especially if they’re related to activism or progressive politics? I’d love to read about them in the comments!