Just How Much Do People Really Read?

The latest put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics offered some interesting statistics regarding time use American Time Use Survey. It computed the average adult male’s leisure time in 2019 at 5 hours and 30 minutes a day. Of this some three hours were devoted to television watching, while reading for personal interest took up 14 minutes of their day.

In other words, they reported that personal reading comprised scarcely 4 percent of their leisure time, as compared with the devotion of 54 percent to television watching (over 13 times as much).

Women reported less leisure time, and more reading. Still, the figures are not so dissimilar. Of 4 hours and 50 minutes given to leisure, 2 hours and 38 minutes were given to looking at TV, and reading just 18 minutes a day — some 6 percent of their leisure hours (and a ninth of what they spend watching TV).

Averaging the figure out, what we get is 5 hours and 10 minutes of leisure, with about 2 hours and 50 minutes spent watching TV, and 16 minutes of reading daily — about 5 percent of their leisure time, and a tenth of the time devoted to television.

Especially given that this is a matter of self-reporting it does not seem at all unreasonable to take these figures as possibly skewed — with people thinking they read more and watch less TV than they actually do.

It is also worth noting that this is a question of all their personal reading, which presumably includes skimming items online (as you may be doing with this piece right now), with heavier reading an unspecified portion of the total. And fiction, in turn, is only part of that, with this confirmed by those studies addressing how much fiction people actually read for pleasure, which may be quite small indeed. A National Education Association survey estimated that “the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year” was a mere 43 percent in 2015 — which is to say 57 percent did not read even one such item the prior year. Putting it another way, even as people claimed to, on average, spend a rough hundred hours a year on personal reading, almost three-fifths of them did not spend a single second looking at any fiction at all (even when, again, personal reporting gives the impression that they may be overstating how much such reading they did).

I bring this up not for the sake of rant against electronic media and the decline of the printed word. We already have plenty of those, a good many of which just confuse things more. Rather I bring this up to put into perspective the place of fiction-reading in people’s lives — and the fiction-publishing market in the economy of leisure and entertainment. It is simply a very small, and shrinking, part of how people spend even their free hours, and that, along with the explosion of virtually cost-less reading options, has had its reflection in the ever-shrinking demand for paid and especially full-price fiction writing.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.