How many books has the average person read?
July 1, 2014 10:49 PM   Subscribe

I'd be interested to know how many books the average person has read by the following ages: 21, 30, 40, 60?

Are there any bell curves to show the distribution in the UK and US populations for how many books read by what age?

Thanks for any help with this.
posted by Musashi Daryl to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Please note that this isn't a reader poll (which we don't do here), but a request for research info. So not "how many books have you read," but where can I find numbers on how much the average person has read. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:59 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

This article cites a Pew Centre study that surveyed about 3,000 Americans - either by phone or in libraries and asked them how many books they had read a year. That probably over-states the amount by a fair bit - it is a self reported figure on a skewed population where the mean and median figures differ substantially. But we could perhaps use it to make an initial median estimate of 10 books per year. That rate of reading seems to be fairly steady up until the time when people retire and have more time on their hands. And let's say they start reading at 5.

This mean that, at 21, people would have read 170 books; at 30 - 260; at 40 - 360 and at 60 - 560.
posted by rongorongo at 1:22 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might also find these reading statistics (again from the US and originating here) useful. Both the UK and USA officially claim literacy rates of about 99% - however it would appear that somewhere between a third and a half of the population stop reading books after high school or college.

So there are probably three distinct groups:
1. A small number of illiterate people where the figure remains at zero.
2. About a third of the population of very light readers where the total number of books read might reach 100 by 21 but which would then stagnate at that level.
3. The regular readers whose habits would confirm to the the sort of steady consumption pattern I mentioned above.
posted by rongorongo at 2:32 AM on July 2, 2014

well also

4. a small number of overactive readers who regularly read significantly more then the pattern above.

ten books a year?
posted by edgeways at 3:09 AM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

edgeways: I think you are right - and it does highlight a pretty big disparity at the top end. At 60 the ten book a year person will have read about 560 books, the book-a-week reader will have covered about 3,000 and the bookworm reading one a day will have chewed through over 20,000. This is what 20,000 books looks like..
posted by rongorongo at 3:23 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nothing that you should pay attention to the differences between mean, median, and mode. In avskewed population like the, the mean (ordinary average) is the least useful. It could easily be a number attributed to very few readers.

The median is probably the number that would be used if it were a public policy question, and it's more easily handled analytically than the mode. But I think the mode (most common answer) may be what the OP really wants
posted by SemiSalt at 6:02 AM on July 2, 2014

I think 10 books/year is a generous estimate — the Pew Center means and medians published at rongorongo's link are described as "among book readers," meaning they do not reflect the 22 percent of respondents who admitted to reading no books at all in the last year.
posted by Mothlight at 7:36 AM on July 2, 2014

Yeah, 10 books per year as a median is too high. 6 might still be too high.
posted by Justinian at 8:57 AM on July 2, 2014

This is one of those things you're probably never going to get a reliable answer for. If someone does claim to have a solid number, their methods would necessarily be too flawed for their data to be useful at all.

Think about all the varied confounding factors involved. Self reporting--people either inflating their numbers or just plain not knowing. The question of what qualifies as a 'book' and what counts as reading it. (Manuals, childrens' books, instructions, long form things that aren't bound or sold as books, things like that.) And even if somehow we could fit people with comprehensive monitoring devices to keep track of how many books they read by whatever definition you settle on, the data you'd measure would vary wildly from person to person because the type and length and closeness of reading would vary so much. Someone who tears through a bunch of 100 page genre books from the internet, then reads their kids a different bedtime story length book every night would have higher book counts than someone who closely read big meaty novels every week or so.

It sucks, because I always find myself wishing that there were some big authoritative store of information like this where I could just look up real statistics on things like this, but there isn't.

Sorry if this is kind of a jerky answer, but I really think this is an unknowable thing.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:06 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

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