Ever since appearing on the scene, books have really taken over, haven’t they! Will they last forever? Will Kindles and other digital media lead to their demise? I digress..
Even before the formal development of the novel in the 16th century and the invention of the printing press before that, the written word was at the core of the earliest societies, like 3rd Millennium BC Mesopotamia where the clay tablet was the preferred form.
So, which books really stand the test of time? Given the wide-ranging history of the form, it’s not an exact science, but here are five titles that stand out as the most successful books of all time.
5. Xinhua Zidian, The Best Selling Book You’ll Never Own
First appearing in 1953, this pocket-sized, Chinese language dictionary is the gold standard reference material for China’s billion-plus population and is especially a must have for the school-aged set.
As of 2004, the dictionary is currently available in its eleventh edition and has sold about 400 million copies.
4. Harry Potter, The Best Selling Book Series
You probably came here looking for this one, so why not get it out of the way? The beloved story of a boy wizard and his escapades at the most unique boarding school in the world immediately captured the imagination of the world when it first appeared in 1997.
Appearing in seven installments over the course of a decade, Harry Potter has been translated into 67 languages, boasts a total of 450 million copies sold, and made author J.K. Rowling the first person ever to become a billionaire just from writing fiction. ON top of this is the fact that it is the basis of the highest selling movie franchise ever.
Even more impressive? The next best selling series, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, has sold only a paltry 300 million and is comprised of more than 62 titles.
3. A Tale of Two Cities, The Best Selling Single-Volume Book
Dickens’s novel detailing the changing lives of those in revolutionary France and Industrial England is still a sales juggernaut, more than a century and a half after its initial 1859 publication.
First appearing like many of Dickens’s works as a serialized novelization in a literary periodical, the book in its whole form has sold more than 200 million copies. Since then, the book has entered the public domain (so you can get it free!), making it a popular title for a great number of publishers and ensuring that the title remains in the public eye.
2. Don Quixote, The Best Selling Novel Ever…Probably
With any book, exact sales figures are difficult to ascertain, but the case of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote especially difficult. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, as it is fully titled, was published in two parts all the way back in 1605 and 1615. Its age along with its masterful writing make it not only one of the best-selling novels but also one of the first and a touchstone in the development of modern Spanish.
Consequently exact figures around the book are unknown, though estimates put this tale of a well-intentioned but misguided knight somewhere in the ballpark of 500 million.
1. The Bible or The Quran or The Communist Manifesto or Quotations from Chairman Mao - The Best Selling Books That Are Impossible to Count
These titles are usually excluded from lists of best sellers for their singularly unique nature. Throughout history, these books have been printed in countless languages, by various publishers, appeared in myriad editions, and have been purchased en masse for free or group distribution as opposed to single copy sales.
That is not to deny, however, the equally unique impact that each of these has had on language, literature, and culture. Estimates of the Bible, for instance, place its contemporary annual sales at 25 million. Similarly inimitable, estimates of Mao’s “Little Red Book” run as high as 6.5 billion printed copies (although this number in particular is unverifiable and almost certainly dubious).
Think you know the exact number of Bibles that have been sold? Please, tell us in the comment section. Otherwise share the list and maybe check a couple more titles off of your ‘To Read’ list.