I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but approximately more than eight kajillion books have been published since Gutenberg invented the printing the press lo, those many years ago, and most if not all are currently available for purchase and/or download on this very website. Not every single one can be a bestseller, of course, because funds are limited and we just can’t spend every last cent on books, the way we would in a perfect world. The following books are bestsellers, the stories that have engaged and delighted and enchanted so many people, generation after generation, that they sit atop the list of the most-read and most purchased books ever. How many of these important titles have you read?
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A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol, solidifying many holiday tropes, and novels like David Copperfield serve as historical accounts of Industrial Age London, but he also wrote blockbuster novels, such as this, his most epic and ambitious work, set around the time of the French Revolution in England and France. (It was, you know, “the best of times” as well as “the worst of times.”)
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien’s epic, wildly imaginative but somehow deeply familiar story of good vs. evil and the powers of friendship and duty created an elaborate mythology, an entire world, and even languages. It’s essentially the first (and probably greatest) full-on fantasy novel, and without it there would be no Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or Dungeons & Dragons.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This novel has often been marketed to children because it’s easy to read, boasts unforgettable illustrations, and is short. But it’s really a book for everyone because it is so profoundly moving, this tale of a painfully sensitive and often lonely space traveler wise beyond his years, and the crashed, Saint-Exupéry-like pilot to whom he relates his adventures.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
It’s a clever and alluring premise for sure—a modern-day Dickensian orphan finds out he’s got magical powers (and blood, and a destiny), and he’s off to attend boarding school at an institution just for wizards and witches. But who would have thought it would be become a publishing and pop cultural phenomenon never before seen and probably never again. Probably the hundreds of millions who bought the first, world-establishing book, which revels in Rowling’s hundreds of ingenious details about the Wizarding World.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
There are a lot of pioneers on this list who still hold the record for the bestselling book in the genre they created. Mystery novels are big business, and they’re so much fun, trying to figure out “whodunit” before the genius detective in the pages does…or after they do, if the book is especially well-crafted. Mystery novels still follow rules laid out by the early masters of the form: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. Herein, eight individuals are invited to a small island off the coast of England for various reasons…and that’s when the murders begin.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
It’s kind of hard to believe that this was written by a guy who, in his parallel life in 1800s England, was a minister and math professor (under his real name Charles Dodgson). It’s just about the zaniest, most psychedelic tale ever told, generated from Carroll telling imaginative stories to the young daughter of a family friend named Alice. The White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter—the whole madcap gang is here.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
This extremely engrossing and inventive tale, the opener of Lewis’s beloved series, sends a quartet of kids displaced by World War II through a bureau and into the magical world of Narnia, where they encounter centaurs, heroic lions, evil witches, biblical allegory, and some very costly Turkish Delight.
She: A History of Adventure, by H. Rider Haggard
Probably the least famous and least read today of the books on this list, She: A History of Adventure is a phenomenally popular book from the 19th century that didn’t itself endure, but which influenced scores of successors. A daring adventurer boasts of his journeys to a forgotten kingdom (or “lost world”) in the heart of Africa, where he and his loyal ward Leo come upon a tribe ruled by a fascinating, possibly supernatural queen.
The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
From the years of 2003 to 2007, was there anybody not on the beach, the subway, on an airplane, or in the park reading this fast-paced popcorn thriller about master symbologist and mystery solver Robert Langdon uncovering secret societies and the earth-shattering truths hidden in famous works of art?
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Salinger did the literary equivalent of a mic drop. He published one of the most widely read and analyzed cult novels of all time (everyone seems to go through a Catcher in the Rye phase in high school and college, particularly frustrated, artsy guys), and, as if to prove he wasn’t one of the “phonies” so hated by world-exploring Holden Caulfield in the book, he then went into seclusion, never to publish anything again. What a way to go out.
How many of these bestsellers have you read?