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Purpose – Librarians planning for the future and unsure about the place of books in an age dominated by technology and media need evidence to make sound decisions. Library and information science researchers have studied the impact of pleasure reading on individuals but not on society. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness about the benefits of recreational reading for societies and to consider the implications of these findings for libraries.

Design/methodology/approach – Examining a wide range of studies by government bodies, intergovernmental agencies, and academics, this article addresses a gap in the library literature by critically evaluating the combined implications of sources not hitherto viewed together.

Findings – The more leisure books people read, the more literate they become, and the more prosperous and equitable the society they inhabit.

Practical implications – Librarians should create a more robust culture of reading and play a stronger advocacy role for books in libraries.

Originality/value –No one has yet examined government reports about literacy in relation to studies on the impact of pleasure reading. The implications of this combined research highlight the fact that pleasure reading benefits societies as well as individuals, a finding that has significant implications for the future direction of libraries. Decision makers who need a robust mandate for book-focused resources and services will find supportive statistical evidence in this article.