Reading as Leisure

Statistics on American's free time activities

Reading for Leisure

Each year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor, collects statistics on what Americans do with their time each day. Its annually published Time Use Survey summarizes the results with a detail that makes you wonder, “Are they watching me?”

The survey documents time spent in various leisure activities, including reading. The following table, taken from the 2009 edition of the report, shows a portion of the reading-specific hours per day by various segments of American society.

Weekday Reading Weekend Reading
Men 0.26 0.28
Women 0.41 0.45
Total, 15 years and over 0.33 0.37
   15 to 19 years 0.17 0.09
   20 to 24 years 0.19 0.15
   25 to 34 years 0.17 0.15
   35 to 44 years 0.16 0.24
   45 to 54 years 0.26 0.35
   55 to 64 years 0.43 0.57
   65 to 74 years 0.71 0.68
   75 years and over 1.03 1.03
Race and ethnicity
White 0.37 0.41
Black or African American 0.14 0.14
Hispanic or Latino ethnicity 0.13 0.10
By weekly earnings
$0-$510 0.14 0.18
$511-$780 0.22 0.23
$781-1,190 0.20 0.27
$1,190 and higher 0.25 0.46

So on average, out of about five-plus hours of leisure time available to each person each day, Americans are reading around 20, maybe 25 minutes. This includes all forms of leisure reading, including magazines, blogs, and the backs of cereal boxes. It’s not much, although it is more than I assumed. Since I’ve been spending around two hours per day reading for The Well-Read Man Project, I only have one word for that limited reading schedule: Lucky!

Reading a few hours per day is work, especially when you read great works with the goal of getting something lasting out of the content. Between note-taking and highlighting and thinking about the implications of what each writer said, reading can be an exhausting endeavor. It’s no wonder that the typical American citizen would rather spend two or more hours per day staring vacantly at a TV screen.

The table above does show some interesting trends. Older people read more than the youngest group, although even that group reads more than the thirtysomethings. The rich outread the poor, and whites read about three times as much as those from the minority groups included in the statistics.

What does all this mean? Mark Bauerlein, in his book The Dumbest Generation, says the statistics point to a dumbing down of those raised in an era of television and internet saturation. He is probably right in his assessment. Statistics are just statistics, and even in colonial days, when everyone read much more than they do now, there were those who exceeded the typical text consumption of the average American. People of this ilk will always be the exception in any generation. But when the mainstream opts out of casual reading, it impacts every aspect of their lives, from their work situation to their political views. Americans would do well to heed the warnings raised by this study. Of course, they would need to find time to read it first.

[Image Credits: Wall]



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