What kinds of books did Americans read growing up, and what do they read now?

Oana DumitruSurvey Data Journalism Intern
July 29, 2022, 9:58 PM GMT+0

Whether it was part of school assignments or simply for pleasure, almost nine in 10 American adults say that when they were growing up, they read books. A recent survey conducted by YouGov asked Americans about the book genres they grew up reading and the ones they are reading now. 

The proportion of people who say that when they were growing up they read books decreases with age, from 95% of Americans over 65 to 79% of those under 30. The more recent an American's childhood, the less likely it was to involve reading books.

The most popular genres for Americans to read when they were growing up are mystery and crime (40%), short stories (39%), and history (39%). Following closely are fantasy (36%), science fiction (36%), and Young Adult (30%). The least popular among types of books polled are religion and spirituality (19%); crafts, hobbies, and home (16%); and graphic novels (14%). 

The genre of young adult books was read the most during childhood among the genres polled by 12% of Americans who read at least one book genre, more than for any other genre. Next were mystery and crime, as well as science fiction — each reported by 10% of Americans.

The most-read book genres during childhood showed gender differences: 17% of women who were childhood readers of at least one book genre say they had read the Young Adult genre the most, while only 6% of men who were childhood readers of at least one genre say the same. Instead, the most-read genre for men when growing up is science fiction (17% of childhood readers of at least one book genre, compared to 4% for women).

How many Americans currently read books?

One in five Americans (22%) have not read a book even part of the way through in the past year. This trend varies with income, with 28% of Americans from households making under $50,000 saying they have not read any books in the past year, compared to 15% of people in households with income between $50,000 and $100,000, and 17% in households making $100,000 or more. Education may also play a role: College graduates are the most likely to have read more than 20 books in the past year (20%, compared to 10% for people with some college and 6% for people who didn't attend college). Americans who didn't attend college are the most likely to not have read any books in the past year (32%, compared to 18% of college graduates).

What genres are Americans currently reading?

Some of the genres they had read most while growing up remain popular with them today too: 28% who read at least one book genre say they read mystery and crime and 27% say they read history books. Mystery and crime is the genre that the biggest share of Americans who read a book genre say they read the most (14%), just as it is the one the most Americans who read a book genre in childhood say they had read more than any other when they were growing up.

But there are also notable changes between childhood and adult reading preferences. Despite being one of the least popular genres for American childhood book-genre readers, religion and spirituality is one of the more popular genres for current book-genre readers, with 20% saying they read this genre, and 13% saying they read it more often than any other.

Current book-genre preferences have some gender differences. Among women who read book genres, 18% say mystery and crime is the genre they read the most, compared to 10% of men. History was the top genre for most-read among men (14%), compared to 7% for women. However, equal shares of men and women who read book genres say they read religion and spirituality books the most (13% of each), making the genre the second-most read for both men and women.

Some genres are enjoyed more by members of some age groups than of others. More adults 65 and older who read book genres say they read history books (13%) more than any other genre than do members of other major age groups. Meanwhile, romance and fantasy are the most-read genres for greater shares of book-genre-reading adults under 30 (10% each) than for any other age group studied. However, the top two most-read genres remain consistent across all age groups: mystery and crime, and religion and spirituality — not always in that order.

Which book genres were read more by Americans when they were growing up, compared to now? While 40% of Americans who were reading book genres when they were growing say they read the mystery and crime genre, only 28% of current book-genre readers say they currently read mystery and crime. However, a great share of current book-genre readers say they read mystery and crime more than any other genre the most today (14%) than say that they had read this genre the most while growing up (10%). While the proportion of Americans who currently read book genres say they read religion and spirituality books (20%) is similar to the share of childhood book-genre readers who had read that genre when growing up (19%), more Americans who currently read book genres (13%) say they read this genre the most today (13%) than the share of childhood genre readers who say they read the genre the most while growing up (4%).

We also asked Americans who have read a book in the past 12 months or are unsure if they have how often they finish the books they start reading. One-third (33%) say they always finish reading books once they start them, and only 1% say they never finish them.

This question showed some differences with age. Around 40% of Americans 45 and older who have read a book in the past 12 months or are unsure say they always finish books, compared to 26% of those between 30 and 44 and 22% of adults under 30.

This poll was conducted on July 19 - 22, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Ying Ge on Unsplash

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