What is the top novel of all time?

Skip Prichard

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What is the top novel of all time? War and Peace? Moby Dick? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Dream of the Red Chamber?

The answer is, of course, “it depends.” It depends on your definitions and measures. Sales? Number of copies published?

One way of measuring is to look at library collections. Libraries reflect popular interest. However, they also reflect scholarly and cultural interest over time. Libraries are where the world’s literature is stewarded and defined.

Using OCLC’s WorldCat, we can actually look at aggregate library holdings from around the world. WorldCat contains data about the collections of more than 18,000 libraries, representing about 447 million publications or other individually cataloged items (e-books, movies, maps, CDs, etc.), which in turn represent about 2.7 billion items held in individual libraries.

WorldCat is the best approximation we have of the published record.

The Library 100: the top novels of all time

Generating The Library 100 list of top novels required some analysis by our team of data scientists to account for the multiple editions and variations—sometimes into the thousands—of widely held novels. The resulting list is heavy in the classics, because those are the novels that are published in multiple versions, translated, edited for younger readers, and widely distributed in core library collections.

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, is the most widely held novel in libraries worldwide. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, is second, followed by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both by Mark Twain. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, takes the fifth spot.

Some other interesting insights from the list:

  • The Little Prince (#35) is the most translated novel on the list, available in 78 languages. Moby Dick (#9) and Oliver Twist (#20) tie for second place with 54 translations each.
  • The three most widely held authors in terms of number of books on the list are Dickens with six, Jane Austen with four and Mark Twain, also with four.
  • More than half the authors—53—have only one book on the list.
  • Some novels have different names based on region. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (#45) in the US is the equivalent of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK. The Library 100 synthesizes these title variations.
  • The most widely held genre on this list is “domestic fiction” with 15 titles. These novels focus on home and family life and include examples like Pride and Prejudice (#6), Little Women (#16), and Sense and Sensibility (#41).
  • Fantasy fiction (the Harry Potter series, #45 and #66) is the second most common genre with 13 titles. Historical fiction (The Three Musketeers, #26) and psychological fiction (Moby Dick, #9) tie for the third most common genre with 12 titles each.
  • The most “storied location” on the list—the setting for the most novels—is clearly the United Kingdom. Combined, all the subsets of the UK—England, Scotland, London, etc.—account for more than a third of the novels on the list!
  • One book on the list was originally published in the 1300s; two in the 1600s; three in the 1700s; 51 in the 1800s; 42 in the 1900s; and only one in the 21st century, The Da Vinci Code (#88).

The Library 100 reflects a historical view of what literature is viewed as important, so it reflects dominant cultures and perspectives over time. These are the books that have been taught, translated, and retold. Of course, libraries increasingly understand that they need to work harder to make their collections representative of the stories, memories, and experiences of all the communities they serve. They are also looking at existing collections in light of historical oversights or exclusions. WorldCat can also be a valuable resource for libraries in this context, and we are interested in learning more about how libraries would like to use it in this important work.

A celebration of literature and libraries

If you step back and reflect, this list is important. It provides a baseline, telling us about the stories that we find significant across the global community. It serves as an indicator of where we need to go, to expand our worldview and perspectives. And while this list recognizes important literature, it also celebrates libraries and their vital role in society.

I hope The Library 100 list provides an interesting, helpful—and fun—resource for your own reading, learning, or teaching journey. The full list, and more information about The Library 100, can be found at oc.lc/library100.