How Many Books?

God Plays Dice has a good post on that story about people not reading books anymore.

So what do we know about the distribution? One-quarter of people read no books; one-quarter read between one and four; one-eighth read between four and seven; three-eighths read more.

They claim a 3% margin of error, as well, which is standard for polls involving a thousand people (as this one was), but that margin of error only applies to the survey as a whole. The article includes a lot of claims of the form “Xs read more than Ys”, but the number of Xs or Ys that were polled is less than a thousand, so the margin of error is greater.


It seems hard to get these numbers, though. The article claims that “In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts report titled “Reading at Risk” found only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop in a decade. The study faulted television, movies and the Internet.” (Emphasis mine.) If you interpret both of these claims at face value, 18 percent of non-readers have been converted to readers in the last five years. This seems unlikely.

As the post goes on to point out, a “book” is not the best unit for measuring how much one has read. Sitting just to the left of my computer are Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies (2007), three Sandman books by Neil Gaiman — Death: The High Cost of Living (1993), The Dream Hunters (1999) and Endless Nights (2003) — and Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (c. 1007). No two of these books represent exactly the same time investment!

6 thoughts on “How Many Books?”

  1. Anyway, reading a lot of books doesn’t mean anything. Reading 5 or 10 books by Chopra could be worse than not reading at all.

  2. There was one study that showed that southerners read more than northerners. There was a caveat, though. The books southerners were reading were religious and romance novels, not exactly the most mind-enriching material out there.

    If a person only read one book a year, and if it was something like ‘Godel, Escher, and Bach’ or ‘The Selfish Gene’ or ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ they would be much better for it compared to reading dozens and dozens of romance novels.

  3. When I mentioned this on my personal blog a friend of mine who identifies as a “psuedo-Southerner” (she’s not from the South originally but has lived there for quite a while) complained that I didn’t point out that Southerners read more than other people.

    But my friend is also not religious, and I said to her that if I pointed that out, in the interests of fairness I’d have to also point out that the difference might be due to religious books.

    She shut up after that.

  4. It isn’t altogether an unreasonable worry, though. In my studies at college I’ve come to know a lot of people and a VERY small minority of them do any reading at all – which blows my mind, because I read between 35 and 50 books annually – and it’s getting worse the more information becomes easy to access. It’s a shame, too, because the professors dumb down the courses (in the social sciences, anyway) in order to compensate and then anyone who does any serious reading ends up doing poorly because they get BORED.

    It is worrying when I can refer to Mill or Nietzsche or Plato or Locke and get nothing but dumb looks.

  5. I guess I’m as guilty of “not reading” as the next person, at least as far as books are concerned. This may be a bad thing for a person with a BA in English to admit, but I have always been particularly bad and inattentive to reading for assignments, a problem which has (to an extent) continued into my MA level work. Much of this is explained by a simple lack of discipline when it comes to forcing myself through those books I do not enjoy or find relevant to my interests and studies.

    Yet, I have to admit that I don’t read even those books which DO please me as much as I should, and for every book I have read there are likely dozens more that I feel I SHOULD read, if only I could make myself. I’ve also got the bad habit of starting new books shortly after beginning others, and taking ages to finish any of them. Offhand, and not counting those I’m using for my work, I’m reading eight books as we speak. But in any given week, I’m likely to have only picked up and made progress in one or two of them. Only when something REALLY grabs my interest do I get into my proper reading mode, at which point I’ll burn through it ASAP.

    But I certainly could never read as many books in a year as the linked blogger at God Plays Dice, especially when not counting text books and study materials. Makes me even more ashamed of my lazy success at school than I already was.

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