Sunday, October 28, 2007

The "Average" American

Recently I have been wondering a few things:
1) How many books does the average American read in a year?
2) What percent of Americans have a passport?

Because I kind of feel like I have read stats on this at some point and have been utterly shocked. Like in a bad way. So, I googled around, and I found more than I wanted to know about the "average" American.

First my two questions:
1) In 2006 nearly 25% of people read no books. Ok, let's just pause and think about that. One in four adult human beings read NO books the ENTIRE year. Which is pretty baffling to me. I mean, seriously?
(PS, it's an Associate Press survey, which you can't get the result of without buying a subscription, but this blogger from Brooklyn wrote an entry about it) But, there is some hope, because 20% of those polled read >15 books. Phew. And I thought our entire country was going down the tubes. Ok, so to round out the numbers, 30% read 1-5 books and 23% read 5-15. So, I mean, basically half of the country read less than 5 books in an entire calendar year. No big deal. Not like our country gets a bad rep in the world or anything for sucking at life. But I won't get up on my soapbox. For now.

And yes, I have already read at least 15 books this year. And I'm totally ok if that comes across as me being a snobby condescending person by stating that fact. Reading a lot is a good thing.

2) So passports. I was right, it's really pitiful how few Americans leave our shores. The number now (with the new requirements to have a passport to go to Canada and Mexico) is cited as anywhere from 20-30%, depending on where you look. I actually couldn't find an exact number, but a NY Times article cited the State Department's 27% have a passport and this blogger did an investigation into before the Mexico/Canada requirements and found similarly ranging numbers. But from what I can gather the numbers floated around 10-15% until recently. And that's just really truly sad to me. Travel is such an enriching and mind-opening thing to do. Oh but right, that would assume that most people are open-minded and willing to step outside their comfort zone. Silly Liz. Again, our country gets this rep for being insular and self-absorbed. I can't imagine why. I'm not bitter, I promise.

What I wonder is how much overlap there is between the ~25% of American who read >15 books per year and the ~25% who own a passport. It seems to me there might be a pretty high correlation. I mean, that's just my gut, but I could be totally wrong.

Alright, so what does the "average" American look like then? Well, this dude named Kevin O'Keefe wrote a book about just that: The Average American
So, here are some characteristics of the average American, according to Kevin's study:

• Eats peanut butter at least once a week
• Prefers smooth peanut butter over chunky
• Can name all Three Stooges
• Cannot name all three branches of government
• Lives within a 20-minute drive of a Wal-Mart
• Eats at McDonald's at least once a year
• Takes a shower for approximately 10.4 minutes a day
• Never sings in the shower
• Lives in a house, not an apartment or condominium
• Has a home valued between $100,000 and $300,000
• Has fired a gun
• Is between 5 feet and 6 feet tall
• Weighs 135 to 205 pounds
• Is between the ages of 18 and 53
• Believes gambling is an acceptable entertainment option
• Grew up within 50 miles of current home

Ok let's just put it out there how unaverage I apparently am. And apparently most people I know (who, by the way almost all own passports and devour books like its their job). Because seriously, everyone I know sings in the shower. So, on that alone, I think he had some people not telling him the truth.
And look at me living in my apartment, not anywhere close to a Wal-Mart, never having fired a gun or gambled. I don't eat peanut butter more than maybe three times a year, but I do prefer smooth. I'll give him that one. But really, I question the mental stability of chunky eaters anyhow, there is nothing average about someone who likes crunch their peanut butter. It's like people who prefer pulpy OJ. Come on now. Who wants to chew while drinking? It's just craziness.
And I will say, I can both name all three stooges AND branches of government.

So I can rest easy at night knowing that I defy average. So, eat that average America. And why don't you get on board while you're at it? Average is so... boring.


preethi said...

For the sake of playing devil's advocate, there are many intelligent, informed, cool people I know who do not read books, but read other things, such as newspapers, magazines, journals, etc.

Also, much as I adore both novels and travel, much of America simply can't afford to leave our borders. While some of these individuals are undoubtedly close-minded and self-absorbed, from my experience, there are a decent number who, while interested in others and willing and desirous to learn, simply do not have that luxury. We are lucky. :)

And chunky peanut butter rocks. I'm with you on the pulpy OJ, though.

Anonymous said...

I don't read books and I don't consider myself dumb, and I don't understand the current obsession in society about reading. People have to start realizing that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around, everyone says books teach you so much, i guess one lesson they lack is open-mindedness.

Anonymous said...

It makes me so mad when someone infers that those who don't travel are less "enriched" than those who do. Perhaps growing up poor and paying my way through college enriched me more that someone who has backpacked through Europe. Not everyone can afford that luxury. But reading is free, and it makes me sad how few read these days. I read 44 novels last year.

Anonymous said...

If you read 15+ books a year, is quantity more important than quality?

For example would someone who read 5 books such as Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Einstein's book on Relativity gain more than someone who read 15+ graphic novels such as Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Do you think that voracious reading correlates to increased income?

It has been speculated that reading increases IQ...I would undoubtedly state that it increases one's vocabulary. (At the very least one's recognition of words if not one's speaking vocabulary.) Is it possible that one who spends little time reading, however engages in an activity such as playing a musical instrument may be increasing intelligence? For example they are developing listening skills. If they are "writing" music, they are developing compositional skills.

susannah said...

I have learned not to be particularly picky about books I read, on account of the sheer amount of surprise I have after finishing a book I hadn't had any great expectations for. I read about a book a week and find that the more I consume on a regular basis, the more I "know", verses reading one big, fat tome of a book.

susannah said...

And about travel... yes, it's true many of us cannot afford the luxury of traveling abroad frequently (myself included) but a lack of finances does not grant anyone the privilege of ignorance towards other cultures and countries- one of the reasons we are regarded so pathetically in the first place. The first step is to turn of MTV, or any other mind numbing channel churning out reality TV crap and begin to learn about the world around you.

And I eat PB very often because I am a vegetarian. And I prefer chunky.

Brian said...

In a competitive society, comparing one's self to the "average" can be fun, or it can be depressing. In most cases, it's probably a little of both.

The relative paucity of avid readers is problematic, although I think that the explanation lies in other social factors. The proliferation of electronic communication devices, for instance, makes it difficult for some people to sit down and do anything that requires concentration. I pull it off by ignoring my mobile phone and email for most of the day, which surprisingly angers a lot of people. This culture of instant communication and multimedia, which is largely driven by employers trying to squeeze as much as they can out of their workers and corporations trying to hit us with as many advertisements as possible, places little value on activities such as reading, which require a reasonable time commitment that doesn't translate into an immediate increase in productivity.

Travel seems to be another casualty of this trend. As a graduate student, I can't afford to travel very far or very often (although I do own a passport and have at least made it as far south as Belize). Even if I had the money, though, I'd have a hell of a time convincing my adviser to give me enough time away from the lab to enjoy myself overseas. The situation is even more problematic for other working people. On the other hand, I'm also significantly more familiar with different cultures than many wealthier people I know who make regular trips overseas, because I take advantage of the cultural diversity at the University.

I think the "average" person in the US would probably do a lot more reading and traveling and would spend a lot less time eating McDonalds, shopping at Wal-Mart, and gambling if the economic system allowed them to do so.

Out of curiosity, how do you manage to live further than 20 minutes from a Wal-Mart? Those damned stores seem to be more prolific than weeds in every place that I've been.

Oh, and I rent a room in a house at the moment. Which category does that put me in?

Anonymous said...

i'd say since you don't own the house you living in you are not included in that category.

As to the whole reading issue. i feel deprived and neurologically damned. i have read 12 real books in my life, 12. i am 16.
I consider my self relatively intelligent though, i listen to npr, i have taken a philosophy class, i have a 3.5 gpa (4.1 weighted) and have achieved the score of '5' on the advanced placement european history test. i have regularly achieved top 10-5% on standardized tests (excluding the sat and act)

how intelligent would you say i am, keeping in mind of course that i have only read 12 books in my 16 years

Anonymous said...

"Ok, so to round out the numbers, 30% read 1-5 books and 23% read 5-15. So, I mean, basically half of the country read less than 5 books in an entire calendar year."

You're correct, you are not very average; your math skills are much worse than most people's...

Maybe you should read more books pertaining to math?

Anonymous said...

if u were willing to fund trips abroad for the average american i'm sure they would be glad to go. but, unfortunately, many of the people you're looking down upon can't quite afford it. and maybe people would read more books if they weren't spending all of their time looking for jobs or working their butts off at the jobs they're fortunate to have. not everyone shares the same luxuries so try not to be so generally critical.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Thanks for sharing the link - but unfortunately it seems to be down? Does anybody here at have a mirror or another source?


Anonymous said...

Hello there,

This is a question for the webmaster/admin here at

Can I use some of the information from your post right above if I give a link back to your site?


Liz Spangler said...

Sure Peter, please do! Just curious what your blog is, would be interested to read what you're writing.

I keep intending to rewrite this article. I never really intended to write anything comprehensive or particularly well-developed, but as this entry by far the most viewed entry on my blog (and the top hit if you google for "how many books does the average american read"), it probably should be rewritten with a bit more research and thoughtfulness. Plus I look back now and see that my tone was not the most helpful, so maybe one of these days I'll get around to rewriting. Feel free to reference this on your blog though. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

it is pretty sad how ppl dont hardly read these days, especially teens. Im a teen and i read and people are all like "look!" *snickers* "hes reading" idk how many books ive read but ive read over 30k pages by halfway through year. i love to read, its one of my favorite hobbies, i just gotta find a good book, if ya know any tell meh :D

Liz Spangler said...

It's great that you read as a teen! Don't worry about those who snicker at you, it will certainly pay off that you're reading so much! If you search through my blog for "Book Review", I've probably review 100 books in the past 2 years, but if you have any specific genre or type of book you'd like to read I can try to recommend something!