Do Today’s Adult Americans Read Freely?

What's stopping you from reading what you want?

Are there limitations to what people are reading?

Reading freely and reading for leisure are not necessarily the same things. But they’re close. Recalling a recent article on censorship and book bans, we’d like to begin with the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement, which spells out the rights of individual and independent readers who are not party to right-wing pressure tactics.

But it goes beyond that. In December 2022, the New York Post shared data from a poll commissioned by Half Price Books, showing that of 2,000 Americans, 73% are opposed to book bans — with 43% having sought out challenged or banned books for reading in 2023.

So given such a significant majority, it seems censorship efforts aren’t the first thing most adult Americans have on their minds these days, especially when it comes to reading.

Busy or Distracted Lives

Many respondents in the aforementioned Half Price Books poll claimed no reading time. However, 40% continue to grow a “to-be-read” pile for which they barely have room. Yet those volumes seldom get read.

In early 2023, a Gallup Poll covered in The Hill, a U.S. government publication, noted that Americans who said they had read over ten books during the previous 12 months showed a drop from about a third of Americans (34 percent) in 2016 to a little over a quarter (27 percent) in 2021.

Even so, Americans purchased some 825 million printed books in 2021, a figure up almost 9 percent since 2020 and far more than the 693 million sold in 2019, according to industry analyst NPD BookScan

So, what do books offer someone who never gets the chance to read them? Is it hoarding or simply a love of books and the aspiration to read them at some point?

If you need help getting back on track with reading, try these recommendations from The Guardian:

  1. Follow book accounts on social media.
  2. Read what you want.
  3. Get a library card and use it.
  4. Create a “to-be-read” list.
  5. Consider audiobooks.
  6. Upload e-books to your phone.

And whatever else you do, keep reading!

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Oh, the Costs! (Of Not Borrowing from a Library)

Let’s face it, libraries are most assuredly the cheapest place to get books. After all, borrowing library books costs little to nothing — certainly less than even the cheapest secondhand bookstore. 

But a problem with library books is that everyone wants the latest and most popular offerings the minute they come out. Unfortunately, most libraries have shoestring budgets and can only afford a certain number of copies, creating lengthy wait lists.

Still, if you look up the call number for your desired (but already checked-out) book, you can peruse the adjacent shelves for something else that captures your attention. But the wait for your original choice annoys you, so you download a copy from a certain “colossal online retailer.”


Yes, some larger book retailers offer spur-of-the-moment discounts or “lightning” deals since their sales typically don’t dwindle. But it’s another “story” for publishers and the professionals they work with. For instance:

  • The printing process costs money — a lot!
  • Authors expect royalties, some fairly high.
  • The number of avid readers is decreasing.
  • Reseller markups can add more costs.
  • There’s competition between paper books and e-books.
  • Popular authors often have huge followings.
  • Without marketing and the accompanying costs, most books would never sell.

It’s a frustrating but easily understood dilemma. 

But at least you have access and the ability to enjoy a good book.

Challenges of Illiteracy or Insufficient Literacy

Do you know that 21 percent of adults in the U.S. will be illiterate in 2023? Or that another 54 percent have a literacy level below 6th grade? And we’ll bet you’re unaware that low literacy levels cost the U.S. up to $2.2 trillion annually.

Adults lacking the necessary literacy skills are, without a doubt, a low-reading group. In fact, they might be unaware of the latest new books, much less where to find them. But instead of visiting a public library, it’s far more likely that these folks are spending their “leisure time”:

  • Frustrated by undiagnosed learning disabilities.
  • Coping with physical disabilities, like vision and hearing loss.
  • Having had a sporadic K-12 education that steered them away from productive learning.
  • Living in fear of domestic violence.
  • Wishing for a good role model to guide them.
  • Being an immigrant with problems learning English.

Many of these overtaxed individuals would relish the chance to enjoy reading. But where and how could they find the time and resources? And has anyone told them about local literacy programs?

Sign the petition to fight book bans!

People Watching (and Judging?)

If you’re an adult, getting lost in a good novel or creative nonfiction account is one thing. It’s quite another if you enjoy reading books written for children or young adults. 

If we’re reading to or with kids, it’s okay. And if we’re sitting in a beauty salon with Harlequins or gossip rags, why not? You were passing the time — and no “respectable literature” was available. Should you have taken out your phone to scroll through social media instead?

A 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of books labeled “young adult” are bought by people over 18, even though the term generally refers to books written for those ages 12 to 17.

So if you’re the mom, dad, grandparent, or friend of a teen, and you sometimes like a peek at what they’re reading, don’t be ashamed or feel guilty. You have some excellent reasons for doing it: It’s something you enjoy, and knowing that other family members also enjoy these fun forays makes it that much better.

Read What You Want — If and When You Want

Most dedicated adult readers have mixed feelings about particular genres, a love-hate relationship, so to speak. Westerns, for example — all tumbleweed and gunfights. Mysteries are so much more riveting. And what can we say about all those “trashy” romance novels? Maybe just a slight thumbing of the nose?

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