Aug 5, 2014

From the Archives

Books: The Bestsellers Americans Are (and Aren’t) Reading

Kids across the country are tallying up the checkmarks beside the finished books on their reading list. As summer winds down, they proudly collect prizes from local libraries and win school awards. For many communities, getting kids to pick up a book during the summer months has become a whole-neighborhood endeavor, with pizza places, burger joints and ice-cream parlors offering treats as incentives (in addition to parental cajoling—or nagging).

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At some point along the journey to adulthood, there’s no more free ice cream. Ideally, reading becomes it’s own reward, an incentive in itself to inhabit another world or learn something new. So who among the grownups is reading…and who isn’t?

To find out, Barna Group presented U.S. adults ages 18 and older with a list of current bestsellers and new releases and asked which books they can check off their own reading list.

Cover to Cover
Among the 20 titles included in the study, three of the five most widely read were released as major motion pictures during the past year, a fact that has likely contributed to the books’ popularity.

Catching Fire, the second installment in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, tops the list of recent books Americans have read from cover to cover. About one in five women (19%) and one in 10 men (10%) have finished the tragic dystopian tale of Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant heroine of Collins’s series. Two-thirds of those who have read Catching Fire are women (68%) and one-third are men (32%).

Those proportions are reversed for Ender’s Game, the classic military sci-fi coming-of-age novel by Orson Scott Card—also turned into a movie in the past year. About two-thirds of its readers are men (63%) and one-third are women (37%). While still popular, Ender’s Game comes in a distant second to Catching Fire. About one in 20 Americans (5%) can check it off their reading list.

Tied for third place are Sycamore Row by John Grisham and Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander. Eight in 10 readers of each title are women (79%). It also appears that divorced readers outpace married or never-married readers when it comes to checking these books off their reading lists; divorced respondents are twice as likely as the national average to say they finished one of the bestsellers.

Rounding out the top five is Divergent by Veronica Roth, the first book in the “other” bestselling post-apocalyptic Young Adult series with a strong leading lady. Women (69%) are more than twice as likely as men (31%) to have read it cover to cover. Readers who have children under 18 (64%) are also more likely than those who don’t (36%) to say they finished Divergent—not surprising, given the book’s intended YA audience. Moms and daughters alike (and, doubtless, a few fathers and sons) call themselves fans of the novel.

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Who’s Reading?
When we segment readers into various demographic groups, we find that some are likelier than others to have read one or two of the books included in the study. Other groups are more likely not to have read any of the popular titles we polled.

Men (82%), for example, are more likely than women (68%) not to have finished any of the books, while women (14%) are twice as likely as men (6%) to have read two of the titles cover to cover.

While Millennials and Boomers are equally likely not to have read any of the books, Boomers (14%) are nearly twice as likely as young adults (8%) to have checked two off the list. Boomers are also more likely than younger generations to make $75K or more a year, so there is likely some crossover between that age group and the high-income segment (14%) that is twice as likely as low-income Americans (7%) to have read two books. And there is probably similar crossover when it comes to marital status: Married (13%) and divorced (15%) adults are more likely than those who have never married (6%) to have read two of the bestsellers cover to cover.

Among faith segments, practicing Protestants are the big readers. They are twice or more as likely (21%) as those of other faiths (11%) and no faith (8%) to have read two of the polled books. They also outpace practicing Catholics, 10% of whom say they finished two books.

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What the Research Means
“While book reading remains a popular American pastime, it certainly isn’t the unifier that TV, movies or sports are,” says Barna Vice President Roxanne Stone. “Thousands of books in dozens of genres come out each year, and readership is spread unevenly across the publishing landscape. Even the most popular books—such as Catching Fire—boast a readership of only about one in seven adults. Fewer than one percent of Americans have read this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Aside from a very occasional outlier, such as the final installment of the Harry Potter series, there’s really no equivalent to a summer blockbuster’s opening weekend (like Guardians of the Galaxy‘s third-largest-ever $94 million August opening). And there’s hardly ever a book group discussion at the water cooler come Monday morning.

“Most books just don’t create the ‘cultural moment’ that other forms of entertainment do,” Stone continues. “Young Adult books, however, continue to prove the exception. Readers from across generations and demographic segments enjoy books like Hunger Games and Divergent, and their readers become evangelists for both the books and the movie adaptations. Since Harry Potter, publishers and filmmakers have returned again and again to this proven formula. And they will likely continue to do so.”

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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted January 28 to February 5, 2014. The survey included 1,024 adults 18 and over, with a completion rate of 51%. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.

People are identified as having a “practicing” faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 and 2002; Gen-Xers (or Busters), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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