Who doesn’t read books? If it’s a question that seems loaded with incredulity, that’s because it is. Literature – and books – are, after all, tools to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity. Yet it is also a question prompted by research that suggests adults in the UK are increasingly turning away from books and leaving them unread on bookshelves.
TGI consumer research from Kantar Media released in 2019 suggests just 51% of adults in the UK read at least one book in the previous year. Not only is this a decrease from 56% in the prior year, it also means 49% – essentially half – of adults in the UK didn’t read a single book in a full 12 months.
Looking across the pond to America, meanwhile, data from Pew Research Centre suggests US citizens are reading substantially more books than their British cousins; with just 27% of Americans saying they did not read a book in 2019.
Why the disparity? Well, a clue lies in what both sets of research revealed about the demographics of readers and non-readers.
In both the US and the UK, those adults who were classed as ‘non-readers’ were more likely to be non-graduates, more likely not to have finished high school, and more likely to be from poorer backgrounds.
Kantar’s TGI research also suggested that there is a growing age divide among UK readers; with 15-24 year olds 32% less likely than the average citizen to be heavy readers, and more likely not to read books at all.
While we need more qualitative data to discover for certain what is putting people off books, from this existing research we might extrapolate that there is a clear correlation between the decline in reading among young people and their increasing obsession with smartphones and social media. We know, after all, that global attention spans are decreasing – particularly quickly among young people – and that books, after all, require so much more attention than a 5 second video on Tik-Tok.
We can also point to an obvious cause of non-readership: poverty.
In the UK, where 10 years of Conservative mis-rule of the economy has seen wages deteriorate, and poverty levels increase to their highest rates in decades, while draconian changes to welfare systems leave children and their parents starving amid increasing job insecurity, it seems a little to obvious that one of the reasons UK adults from poorer backgrounds may not be reading as much as they once did is because they can’t afford to buy books. After all, the cost of a new paperback – around £10 – can in some cases be the difference between keeping the heating on.
The price of books of course shouldn’t be a barrier to people’s ability to read – and find enjoyment and satisfaction from – literature. Yet under the Conservatives, the UK has also seen drastic cuts to library and library services, with the closure of hundreds of libraries across the country since the Tories came to power.
As if to underline the important role libraries play in enabling people to read, Pew research points out that a 2015 survey found that the demographic groups they surveyed acknowledged the importance of libraries in their communities and for their families: Black and Hispanic adults, those in lower-income households and adults ages 30 and older were more likely to say that their local libraries serve them and their families “very well.”