Books. We love them. Whether they be nail-biting thrillers, self-help tomes, or erotic novels, books have played a central role in human history. Despite the timelessness of all books, some are clearly more popular than others and more widely read than the rest. Due to the difficulty of accurately estimating publication and sale numbers for certain books (e.g. the Bible, Quran, “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung”, “The Odyssey”) – whether it be because they were published by various different publishers or published across many centuries or before clear records were not kept – they have been omitted from this list. (As a reference, by the Guinness World Records Book standard, the Bible is the best-selling book in history with over five billion copies sold.) Also, if a book has the same number of reported sales as another book, whichever book was published more recently is placed higher in the list as it has had less time to achieve that success. As autumn and winter begin to fall over the Northern Hemisphere, check out this list of the most widely-read books to find your next few readings. Curl up with a hot coffee or tea as you nuzzle into this list of the 25 Best Selling Books in History.
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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ - 50 million
The first fictional book to be blessed by a Pope (Leo XIII), “Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ” recounts the story of fictional Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, enslaved by Roman rulers. Vowing revenge on the Romans, Judah becomes a charioteer and Christian, all while living in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was emerging at the same time. Lew Wallace’s knock-out novel, “Ben-Hur” is known as “the most influential Christian book of the 19th century” and won 11 Academy Awards in 1960 for its film adaptation.
Anne of Green Gables - 50 million
The most popular book written by a Canadian author, “Anne of Green Gables” follows the life of 11-year-old Anne Shirley with her adopted parents (who originally wanted a boy). Selling over 50 million copies, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book has become one of the best-selling books in history. Montgomery drew on the popular “formula Ann” orphan stories of her time to create Anne and used her own childhood on Prince Edward Island for the setting.
The Mark of Zorro - 50 million
Johnston McCulley’s classic “The Mark of Zorro” has become a cult icon in pop culture. The American equivalent of Robin Hood, Zorro is the secret identity of Californian noble Don Diego de la Vega who defends the common man and humiliates corrupt officials. A widely popular 1920 film solidified Zorro’s place in our psyche as a masked crusader of justice.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care - 50 million
One of only three non-novels on this list, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Dr. Benjamin Spock (unrelated to the Star Trek character of the same last name) was published in 1946. The best-selling book in America during the 20th century, this tome was written for parents, especially mothers, as a manual on child care. Post-World War II, Baby Boom mothers found great relief in Spock’s uncomplicated, supportive tone.
Charlotte's Web - 50 million
A children’s classic especially after being made into a film by the same name, “Charlotte’s Web” tells the story of young pig Wilbur and his spider friend Charlotte who spins her web to convince the farmer to keep him alive. Written by E.B. White, the book is listed as the best-selling children’s paperback in history by Publishers Weekly.
The Ginger Man - 50 million
A prolific writer, J.P. Donleavy demonstrated the skill of Irish (American) writers in his first and most popular novel, “The Ginger Man”. Published in 1955, the book was banned by both his ancestral (Ireland) and birth (U.S.A.) countries for being too obscene. Set in Dublin, this top-seller follows the adventurous life of Sebastian Dangerfield as he pursues women, booze, and a rogue lifestyle while avoiding his studies at Trinity College.
Lolita - 50 million
Written by Russian-native Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita” was originally written in English before being translated into Russian by the author. Forming a classic part of 20th century literature, the book follows protagonist Humbert Humbert (a 38-year-old year professor) as he develops a sexual relationship with his new 12-year-old stepdaughter Dolores Haze (commonly known by his nickname for her, Lolita). Since then, “Lolita” has been made into two operas, two ballets, and a Broadway musical. In pop culture, the name “Lolita” often refers to a girl who is sexually more mature than her age.
One Hundred Years of Solitude - 50 million
The only Spanish book on this list is Colombian Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s landmark “Cien Años de Soledad” (English: “One Hundred Years of Solitude”). Selling over 50 million copies, this magical realist novel follows the Buendía family: the founders of Macondo, a metaphor for Colombia. Translated into 37 languages, this widely read book is a primary example of the Latin American Literary Boom of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Watership Down - 50 million
A fantasy novel with talking rabbits (though very different from stories of Br’er Rabbit), “Watership Down” is Englishman Richard Adams’ flagship novel. The anthropomorphized bunnies journey to find a new home after one of them has a vision their homeland will be destroyed. The story draws parallels between freedom and tyranny (as does Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) and between reason and emotion.
The Eagle Has Landed - 50 million
The best selling spy thriller book on our list (and thus in history), Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed” was published in 1975. The riveting pages follow the mission of a group of German paratroopers and an Irish IRA (Irish Republican Army) member as they land on the English coast in 1943. Their mission? Kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Also made into a 1976 film, “The Eagle Has Landed” is a must-read for any lover of suspense.
The Hite Report - 50 million
Shere Hite revolutionized the lives of women when she published her most famous book in 1976. “The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality” was by far the best-selling book in history relating to the often taboo subject of female sexuality and pleasure. A feminist and sex educator, Hite interviewed 100,000 women from 14 to 78 years old about their views on sex, what orgasm truly feels like, and the greatest pleasures and frustrations in their sexual lives. Published during the free love revolution, “The Hite Report” was an open, honest, and direct book for women about their sexuality.
The Name of the Rose - 50 million
The Italian bestseller on our list (Pinocchio has only sold 35 million copies), “Il Nome della Rosa” (English: “The Name of the Rose”) was written by novelist Umberto Eco in 1980. Showing our love for murder mysteries (#5 is another), the novel follows William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar who must find the killer of multiple murders at a Northern Italian monastery. The novel is intriguing for its involvement of semiotics – the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation – throughout the story.
The Bridges of Madison County - 50 million
Better known by many for its film version, this 1992 novel is one of the 20th century’s best-sellers despite being on the market for less than a decade. Written by Robert James Waller, “The Bridges of Madison County” depicts the affair between a lonely, married woman in Iowa and a photographer who visits Madison County to take photographs of the area’s covered bridges. At over 50 million copies already sold, this book is one of the most rapidly selling books of all time and was even adapted into a musical in 2013.
The Catcher in the Rye - 65 million
A fictional coming-of-age tale, J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” was one of the most controversial books of the 20th century. An archetype for teenage angst, rebellion, and the search for identity, this novel continues to sell over a quarter-of-a-million copies annually, many to high school English classes some of which have made the book required reading.
The Alchemist - 65 million
Having sold over 65 million copies, “O Alquimista” (English: “The Alchemist”) is the best selling Brazilian book (and Portuguese-language book) in history. Published in 1988 by Paolo Coelho, the book follows Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago on his journey to Egypt to find the abstract concept of what he has always wanted to achieve – the book’s primary theme.
Think and Grow Rich - 70 million
Featuring one of only two American authors in the top ten (the other is #9), “Think and Grow Rich” was a self-improvement book written by Napoleon Hill in 1937. Asked to look at the relationship between individual characteristics and wealth attainment by steel giant Andrew Carnegie, Hill embodied his 13 principles of personal achievement into the book, a hot-cake as countries were beginning to emerge from the Great Depression.
The Da Vinci Code - 80 million
The most recently published book in the top ten of the most widely read books in the world, “The Da Vinci Code” was a global phenomenon in the mid-2000’s. A mystery-detective novel written by Dan Brown, the book follows main characters Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu as they investigate a murder at the Louvre and are embroiled in a deeper, sacrilegious (called by some groups) mystery regarding the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - 85 million
Starting a line of primarily British author domination for the remaining places on our list, C.S. Lewis and his fantasy novel “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” come in at #8 with 85 million copies sold. Present in many a high school English class, the novel follows the story of four English children completing their destiny in the land of talking animals and mythical beings. Though the book is only one (the first) in a seven-novel series, it is by far the best-selling.
Dream of the Red Chamber - 100 million
The only Chinese book on our list is Cao Xueqin’s “Dream of the Red Chamber” (Chinese: 红楼梦). Such a major hit in China, the book even has its own named field of study: Redology. Considered to be one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, “Dream of the Red Chamber” is one of the most complex novels ever written with almost 40 major characters and nearly 500 minor characters. Written during the Qing dynasty, the book often employs poetry as it follows the life of two aristocratic families and their declining wealth and status.
She: A History of Adventure - 100 million
So influential that it has been cited by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in their writings, “She: A History of Adventure” is H. Rider Haggard’s most famous work. One of the finest examples of imaginative and imperialist literature, this novel tells the story of two men’s trek to a lost kingdom deep in the African continent. The men come across a savage native tribe and their white queen: “She-who-must-be-obeyed”. A bedrock of the Lost World subgenre, “She” purports many Victorian ideas of race and evolution.
And Then There Were None - 100 million
Legendary English mystery novelist Agatha Christie wrote the thrilling “And Then There Were None”, the fifth best-selling book in history with over 100 million copies to date. Originally titled “Ten Little Niggers” after the British blackface song which plays a major role in the story’s plot, the book was released in the United States as “And Then There Were None”: the final five words in the original American version of the song. The story goes that ten people who have all killed another person in some way are invited to an island where they are slowly killed off themselves. Christie’s masterpiece, this novel is the best selling mystery book in history.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - 107 million
Though the other Harry Potter books all made the list, they have been omitted to keep the list from being monotonous. (At positions 11 and 14-18, they sold between 50-65 million copies each.) The first book in this seven-part fantasy series, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (“…Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S.) was J.K. Rowling’s first published novel. (Twelve publishing houses turned the book down before one finally accepted it.) Rowling’s writing in this first book has been compared to Ancient Greek poet Homer, children’s author Roald Dahl, and romance writer Jane Austen. As a series, Harry Potter is the best-selling book series in history.
The Little Prince - 140 million
“Le Petit Prince” – known in English as “The Little Prince” – is the 1943 novella of French aristocrat Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The third most-translated book in the world (it’s in over 250 languages and dialects), this novella tells the story of a lonely young alien prince who fell to Earth. Though geared towards children, “Le Petit Prince” has adult themes – especially related to the bizarreness of the adult world – which make it a joy for anyone to read.
The Lord of the Rings - 150 million
The second best selling book (though sold as a series) of all time is “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy pack of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers”, and “The Return of the King”. (Published individually, “The Hobbit” sold 140.6 million copies but is omitted from the list just as the remainder of the Harry Potter books were.) Selling over 150 million copies, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels follow the hobbit Frodo, wizard Gandalf, and their compatriots as they set about to save their land of Middle-Earth. The book series is so popular in Great Britain it was voted by the people as the “Nation’s Best-Loved Novel” in the BBC’s “The Big Read” competition. (Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was number two.)
A Tale of Two Cities - 200 million
“The best selling novel in history is “”A Tale of Two Cities”” by English author Charles Dickens. Written as a critique of English society, the novel largely takes place in Paris before and during the French Revolution. Depicting the French peasantry’s dissatisfaction with French aristocrats in the years leading up to the revolution and then their dissatisfaction with the revolutionaries’ brutality towards said aristocrats, Dickens wrote the book as a parallel of British society in the mid-19th century.
What favorite book do you have that you think should be a best-seller?”