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Just 4 Percent of Reading Americans Read E-Books Exclusively

Checking in on our headline-defying reading habits.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

E-book reading is on the rise, says the Pew Research Center’s latest audit of American reading habits, so that's what all the headlines are honing in on. But lest we jump to dichotomous conclusions too quickly, Pew’s results also suggest that this increase in e-reading has not come at the expense of print books, which it says “remains the foundation of Americans’ reading habits.”

This most recent survey, conducted at the beginning of this month, examines the book formats that American adults prefer: print, digital, or audio. While print still triumphs, with seven out of ten respondents claiming to have read a dead tree book in the past year, e-reading is growing, with 28 percent reporting they had read an e-book in 2013. That's up from September, when a similar Pew poll reported 23 percent had read a book digitally.


Most intriguing is the finding that only four percent of readers would classify themselves as “e-book only”—those that abstain from print and audio entirely. While this initially seems shocking, if I reflect on my own reading habits, as well of those of m

y friends and colleagues, it does indeed seem that no one I knows fit this category. On the flipside, of all the readers surveyed, 52 percent reported being "print only," consistently choosing the tangible over the virtual.

Beyond discussing formats, the survey also gives a brief glimpse at reading habits in the United States more generally. Although almost a quarter of those surveyed reported reading no books at all in the past year, the remaining respondents generally couldn’t stop at just one. In fact, the typical American, represented by the median of the results, read five books over the course of 2013.

Another takeaway is that print-readers seemed to be the biggest holdouts when it comes to other forms of literary consumption: According to Pew, “fewer print readers consume books in other formats.” By contrast, those who listened to audiobooks engaged with a veritable buffet of formats, with 84 percent reading print and 56 percent reading digital over the past 12 months.

These results are a vindication for those who disdain the tendency to pit digital and print against one another, as though one or the other will inevitably win, vanquishing the other to the graveyard of lost technologies. Last March, when I spoke to Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, he had some incisive words about the subject.

“I think most people—I don’t have the data to back this up, but I really believe it strongly—most people who really love books, they read a ton of print books and they read a ton of e-books and they like them both for different reasons. Unfortunately, that’s unsatisfying as a future prediction for pundits. Headline: People Read All Sorts of Things for Different Reasons, It’s Kinda Complicated and Messy and Will Be for a Long Time.

He may not have had any data offhand to support his hypothesis while we chatted, but this Pew report suggests he was right.

So then, what is the shape of reading at the beginning of 2014? In an age of all-digital libraries, it’s still a headline-defying mix of digital, audio, and print, an amalgamation of reading habits that probably depends more on availability, convenience, and the momentary preferences of readers rather than any grandiose theory on the proper way to read.

Graph via Pew Research Center's report on American reading habits.