Jun 13, 2013From the Archives
The Books Americans Are Reading
“It wasn’t as good as the book.” It’s an inevitable phrase when a beloved book is made into a movie. Some book fans will love the movie, some will hate it—but many all of them will go see it. In May, a new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby released, leading to passionate arguments on how the movie did or didn’t live up to the book’s promises.
In recent years, book fanatics have analyzed movie adaptations of favorites like Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Life of Pi, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia and The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And the big screen doesn’t have room to hold all of the content from bestselling books: each Sunday, fans of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series tune in to see how their beloved story is retold on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Book adaptations are nothing new, of course. But it’s curious that they remain so popular in a time when “no one reads anymore.” It’s not uncommon to hear anecdotal evidence of “the death of books” or assumptions about the attention span of people in an Internet age. If Hollywood can still bank on the popularity of a book to drive movie sales, books must still hold their place in the American heart.
Books or Movies?
Books do remain popular—and widely read books often get turned into movies, which likely makes the books even more commercially popular. It’s a marriage of two mediums, but also demonstrates that America still likes to read. And even more so, Americans likes to watch what they read—and read what they watch.
Consider The Hunger Games, one of last year’s biggest movies, and one of the decade’s bestselling novels. Fewer than one-in-five (15%) American adults (18 years or older) say they read the tale about a girl trying to survive in a dystopian future. That is roughly half the one-third of American adults who saw the movie (33%). That might seem like a significant difference, but the book also began as a young adult series while the movie was marketed to appeal to a wider target. Still, the audience crossed over: four-in-ten adults who have seen The Hunger Games have also read the book.
Another teen and young adult book series has also led to one of the biggest hit movie series of all time. If you haven’t read them or seen the movies, you certainly know someone who has, and a teenager who has probably done both. The book series, of course, is the Twilight saga. About one out of seven (14%) have seen the most recent movie, Breaking Dawn Pt. 2, and a similar number (12%) have read the book Twilight. True to form, four-in-ten adults who saw the movie also read the book.
Another one of last year’s most talked-about book adaptations was Peter Jackson’s take on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first installment of a trilogy of films, Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, grossed more than $300 million in the U.S. Overall, one-in-eight (13%) Americans saw the movie. But in this case, literature reigns supreme: 15% of American adults have read The Hobbit, due perhaps to the fact that the book has been in print for decades. Hobbit readers converted an even higher proportion of viewers than did Hunger Games or Twilight: half of American adults who saw the movie have also read the book.
So it’s clear movies are still driving people to books, and vice versa. But who’s reading all those books? And are people reading books that don’t get turned into movies?
Demographics of Book Readers
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the primary segment that has read The Hunger Games and Twilight are women, since both books feature a young, female character in their lead role. Just one in ten American men have read The Hunger Games, compared with one in five females. And of the 12% of all American adults who have read Twilight, nearly nine in ten (86%) of that number are female. The Hunger Games also tends to skew younger: nearly one-third (28%) of Americans aged 18-28 have read the book. Similarly, one in five Mosaics have read Twilight.
Women also accounted for a significant portion of the readership of 50 Shades of Grey, which turned dubious critical response into one of 2012’s biggest publishing success stories. The book with explicit sexual content trends higher among older readers, with one in ten of both Busters (29-47 year-olds) and Boomers (48-66) who say they’ve read the book. The same proportion of practicing Christians (9%) have read 50 Shades as among American adults (9%). Among women, 16% have read the scandalous bestseller, meaning more of them have read 50 Shades of Grey than The Hobbit (12%).
On the other side of the gender divide, men were the primary readers of The Hobbit and A Game of Thrones. About one-seventh of American adults have read Tolkien’s tale of Bilbo Baggins and company, and of that number, nearly six out of ten (58%) are male. Similarly, George R.R. Martin’s first effort in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, has a readership that skews male—of the 3% of Americans who have read Thrones, more than six-in-ten (65%) are male.
Another recent book-to-movie adaptation book was Life of Pi, which had a strong spiritual focus, suggesting it might have appealed to a religious audience. While one out of 25 Americans (4%) have read the book, more than one-third (37%) of its readers were practicing Christians. Readership was almost evenly split along gender lines and, as with many of the books surveyed, found its primary readership among Busters (45%), while an additional quarter were Mosaics (23%).
Books, Books and More Books
Not all books are translated into film and the Barna study examined major non-fiction works as well. One unpredictably successful book was The Signal and the Noise by statistician Nate Silver, who gained prominence during the 2012 American presidential election. About 1% of Americans reported reading Silver’s book.
Last year also included a number of successful faith-related non-fiction books. These included Dr. Eben Alexander III’s Proof of Heaven (1%), Max Lucado’s Grace (1%), Lysa TerKeurst’s Unglued (1%) and Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow (1%).
Is The Good Book a Good Book?
What about the biggest book of all: the Bible? The perennial bestseller is still a major focal point for many book publishers. And in America, it is still widely read—one in five of all American adults have read the Bible from start to finish. While it might not be shocking to discover well over half (61%) of evangelical Christians have read the Bible from start to finish, it may be surprising that nearly one in six (18%) of people with a faith other than Christianity and about one in eleven (9%) people with no faith claimed to have done the same.
Approximately one-third of politically conservative adults say they have read the Bible, compared with one-tenth of political liberals. Nearly one-third (29%) of black adults say they’ve read the Bible from start to finish, more than Hispanic adults (22%) and white adults (19%). Boomers are the group with the highest likelihood to have read the Bible from start to finish, with nearly one-quarter (23%) reporting they had done so.
What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, directed the research and pointed out several implications of the research.
1. Americans are increasingly craving a multi-media way to enjoy their favorite stories. The large crossover between those who have read and seen The Hunger Games, Twilight and The Hobbit suggests that movies and television propel books and vice versa. Having fiction translated onto screen also aids serialized content by helping people “get the story” without having to read all of the installments of the novels.
2. Despite the emerging digital landscape, the research also suggests book reading is not dying out. Especially surprising from the data is that young adult readers—generations that Barna Group labels Busters and Mosaics—make up the primary audience for most of the books assessed. Even for a “very old” book like The Hobbit, the majority of readers were under the age of 50. The exception to this came with a few of the Christian books, including TerKeurst’s’s Unglued, Lucado’s Grace and Alexander’s Proof of Heaven, which all skewed toward Boomers and Elders.
3. Another unmistakable pattern in the research is the power of stories—namely, fiction—in propelling the publishing industry. Even though both genres (fiction and non-fiction) have tens of thousands of titles that are published every year that do not reach critical success, the best and nearly only chance for breakthrough, culture-making book-form content is through fiction. Perhaps this indicates that Americans are hungry for media that provides some sort of escapism from stressful and uninspired lives. But it also harkens to something Jesus himself modeled: people resonate with and learn through stories and parables.
4. Finally, the level of engagement with the Bible is enlightening. It is not a surprise that so many practicing Christians report reading their primary sacred text from front to back. It is surprising that nearly a fifth of people who claim another faith than Christianity and nearly a tenth of people with no faith claim to have done the same. It suggests Christians should not assume non-Christians are categorically unfamiliar with their sacred scripture.
About the Research
The study on which this report is based included online surveys with 1,075 adults who were randomly chosen from the United States. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
The study was conducted between January 17 and January 23, 2013 using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population, operated by Knowledge Networks. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled panel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection at no cost. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists receive unique log-in information for accessing the online survey they were recruited to participate in.
“Practicing Faith Christians” includes self-identified Christians / Catholics who have attended a church service at least once in the past month and who agree strongly with the statement “your religious faith is very important in your life today.”
Generations: Mosaics / Millennials are a generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters, born between 1965 and 1983; Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; and Elders were born in 1945 or earlier.
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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