6 Things I Learned When I Asked People About Their Reading Choices

Diane Callahan
Sep 25, 2020 · 9 min read

When I see someone’s nose stuck in a book, I get nosy myself. I squint and crane my neck, casting surreptitious glances across the restaurant or hallway because I just have to know what they’re reading (God forbid I actually strike up a conversation).

I don’t entirely understand what drives that curiosity. Perhaps it feels like knowing their reading tastes will give me insight into who they are — an odd sort of bond between two strangers. Or maybe I’m subconsciously looking for book recommendations wherever I go, even though I’m already metaphorically crushed beneath the weight of my to-be-read pile.

Whatever the case, that same curiosity drove me to spam my social circles with a ten-question reading survey so I could peek into their brains.

Now, this survey is by no means scientific. For one, I only collected a puny thirty responses, and the sample largely comes from my writing groups. So, the majority of the sample looks like this:

  • Fiction writers
  • Fantasy readers
  • Between the ages of 26 and 55
  • Half of which read more than 25 books per year

But the results still served as a fascinating microcosm of writers’ reading habits. From their responses, I noticed six surprising (and some not-so-surprising) trends when it came to reading preferences.

The blank category at the bottom is “Other: LitRPG.”

1. Readers Still Prefer Print

Even with audiobook sales skyrocketing, most of the readers in this survey would have you pry their print books from their cold, dead hands. I’d be curious to know if the under-25 crowd also prefers print, or if there’s a type of nostalgia effect going on when it comes to older adults preferring the print books of their childhood.

I grew up on print books and love collecting them, but in the past five years, I’ve read way more ebooks and audiobooks despite that preference.

Respondents could choose multiple formats.

2. Different Genres Belong on the Same Shelf

The question “What were the last five books you read?” yielded a variety of answers. I thought it would be more common for readers to primarily consume books in their favorite genre, whether that be romance or high fantasy. That’s true for a select few readers, but the overwhelming majority had eclectic tastes, reading sci-fi, nonfiction, and poetry within the same time span.

For example, one person’s reading diet included these picks:

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers (literary short story collection)
  • Recursion by Blake Crouch (sci-fi)
  • Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Vol. 1 by David Petersen, Jeremy A. Bastian, and others (graphic novel)
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (historical fiction)
  • Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon (fourth book in the Outlander historical romance series)

I was also surprised by the number of books on these lists I never even knew existed, like The Seville Communion by Arturo Peréz-Reverte and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley.

3. The Most Beloved Book Is . . . Pride and Prejudice?

When listing their five favorite books, readers’ most mentioned one was Pride and Prejudice, cited five times by both men and women. Interestingly, it was the first book listed in multiple instances. That makes me wonder if it was the first assigned “classic” in high school that they connected with, hence the pride of place in their reading list.

Other favorites mentioned several times included the big names of fantasy/sci-fi and a few modern classics:

  • The Harry Potter series (particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire)
  • The Hunger Games
  • Ender’s Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead
  • Dune
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Name of the Wind
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • A Man Called Ove
  • House of Leaves

4. The Greats Are Still Great (and Still Mostly Dudes)

Under favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien was listed five times. George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Patrick Rothfuss were also mentioned multiple times. This is hardly surprising, given that my writing circle is oriented toward sci-fi and fantasy.

Other group favorites included Graham Greene, Jane Austen, George Saunders, Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, and Daphne du Maurier, with the latter mentions suggesting that horror and dark fiction rule the literary world.

It’s rather telling that no one mentioned J.K. Rowling as a favorite author, even though two were currently reading Harry Potter books and five listed them as favorites.

5. Men Lean Toward Male-Authored Books

The small sample size was split down the middle in terms of gender. My theory was that men tend to read more books by authors of their own gender than women do, purely based on my past anecdotal experiences. Whenever I’d ask my male critique partners about the last five books they read, they’d always list five male authors in a row.

I didn’t tell the respondents I’d be measuring this information; instead, I individually tabulated the number of male versus female authors each respondent read, pairing them up with their given gender.

Barring any unknown pen names and two non-binary authors who were mentioned, these were the trends:

Last Five Books Read

  • Out of the 15 male respondents, 11 of them read 3 or more books by a male author for their 5 most recent reads.
  • Out of the 15 female respondents, 3 of them read 3 or more books by female authors for their 5 most recent reads.
  • No respondent had recently read five books in a row authored by the opposite gender.
  • Men who read entirely male authors for their last five books = 4.
  • Women who read entirely female authors for their last five books = 2.

Five Favorite Books

  • Out of the 15 male respondents, 14 of them listed 3 or more male authors as favorites.
  • Out of the 15 female respondents, 3 of them listed 3 or more female authors as favorites.
  • No respondent had a list of favorite authors that only featured the opposite gender.
  • Men who listed all-male favorite authors = 6.
  • Women who listed all-female favorite authors = 2.

So, is this gender disparity a problem?

Well, a 2014 Goodreads survey of 40,000 readers found that people tend to read authors of their own gender:

“Goodreads’ data showed that male authors accounted for 90% of men’s 50 most-read titles this year. Before female writers rush to find a new male pseudonym, however, the converse is also true: according to Goodreads, ‘of the 50 books published in 2014 that were most read by women, 45 are by women, and five are by men.’ And one of those men was Robert Galbraith, or JK Rowling.”

It’s no surprise that we gravitate toward the familiar and what speaks to us personally. Most people don’t even take into account the author’s gender when selecting a book — they simply choose categories that appeal to them, and they just so happen to be books by other men or women.

Even so, we could all benefit from examining our reading habits and seeing if we can expand our reading horizons by consciously deciding to read a book by someone of a different gender, sexuality, or race/ethnicity than ourselves. By picking up books we wouldn’t normally choose, we can discover new favorites and expand our empathy for others.

6. Reading Is a Form of Immortality, Empathy, and Lifelong Learning

The final survey question was enigmatic and open-ended: “Why do you read?”

I noticed that these responses generally fell into a few different categories. Ultimately, most readers read for similar reasons, but these answers provide insightful ways of phrasing those universal feelings.

My Favorite Response

“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” ― Annie Dillard

For pleasure, to learn new things, to understand others, to escape, to be entertained, the joy of the written word.

The Immortality Seekers

  • My mind palace is endless and every book adds another floor and another acre outside. Reading breathes life into an otherwise dull and lackluster existence. I suppose the next step would be to write. *Shrug*
  • To feel more alive.
  • To live as many lives as possible.
  • To live a thousand lives.

The Empaths

  • To experience things that I can’t experience in real life, to learn and get inspired, to see different perspectives and to rediscover the sense of wonder we all had as a child.
  • Because it opens me up to other worlds, other lives, other experiences I would not otherwise interact with or learn about.
  • i like finding different ways to look at the world.
  • I read because I love stories. I don’t think I’ve ever pinpointed an exact reason for it, but the idea of living on someone else’s world, as well as the experience of being a part of a great story always draws me to want to read more and more.

The Lifelong Learners

  • There’s no such thing as knowing enough. It takes me apart and puts me back together again; hard to explain it otherwise. Also way more gratifying than being addicted to a phone, so it becomes a challenge for my own attention.
  • To learn and become better; to escape; reading about exotic places is safer than traveling; books have much greater detail and nuance than tv/movies
  • To grow and to challenge myself and the way I see the world.
  • To escape and to learn!
  • To learn or relax/be entertained
  • It helps me learn, experience other cultures, and relax.
  • To relax, to escape, to learn.
  • For the pleasure of intellectual stimulation
  • Half to learn to write better, half for nostalgia’s sake (my mother would read me to sleep and reading/listening to books accesses the same emotions).
  • Curiosity

The Escapists

  • Fantasy, Sci-fi gamelit/litrpg to help me escape this reality, Horror in the hopes I find something to actually scare me, and spec ops books just for my interests in special warfare
  • I’ve always loved fiction. My mother is big reader, and I’ve been an avid reader since I was a young child.
  • For enjoyment and to learn more about the craft of writing books (though I find it hard to read over the past few years, between time restraints and concentration issues)
  • As entertainment. To learn how good stories are told.
  • For pleasure and profit
  • For escapism, and to attempt to learn how the pros pull off stories without the television.
  • Because I love stories and escaping into other worlds and other lives

The Confused

  • Why would one not read?
  • Uh
  • I honestly do not know.

Why do you read? I’d love to hear your reasons in the comments.

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Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

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