“We know nothing,” responded a famous film producer from Hollywood’s golden age, when asked why some films became hits and others were flops. The same usually holds true in the publishing world – except in the case of these runaway bestsellers.
1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle (30 million copies)
An overnight sensation when it was released in 1969, this story still has the power to shock today. One can only read on with mounting horror as the insatiable caterpillar enters a netherworld of greed, realising its deepest desires.
2. Charlotte’s Web – EB White (50 million copies)
This novel has all the classic ingredients of a page-turner: relentless, white-knuckle action, a complex and demanding plot, and a belter of a finale, in which the horrible spider is finally vanquished.
3. Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov (60 million copies)
This novel’s success had nothing to do with people buying it under the pretence of appearing literary, then surreptitiously thumbing through to page 79. Nope. It was the story.
4. The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger (65 million copies)
It takes about 180 pages for Holden Caulfield to realise what really matters in life, but that’s not the point of this novel. Because it is at its heart a cautionary tale: do not, under any circumstances, allow your children to play baseball.
5. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (80 million copies)
It should have come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of history that Leonardo Da Vinci once conspired with The Knights Templar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Plato, Richard Nixon, and the mother from The Brady Bunch to cover up Mary Magdalene’s romantic involvement with JC, but it did, and so a bestselling novel was born.
6. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis (85 million copies)
Christian dogma masquerading as pagan fantasy has always been a safe bet in the publishing world. The key to this book’s success is far more nuanced though. After all, there is nothing quite so engrossing as hearing a boy complain loudly, for several chapters, about how his stockings are wet, and how one cannot possibly go on when one’s feet are so jolly cold.
7. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (100 million copies)
The huge success of this novel can be put down to its original title: “Ten Little Niggers”, which upon this novel’s release in 1939 resulted in a worldwide storm of praise. The book is, however, almost completely devoid of overt racism – if we ignore that found in chapters 2, 3, 5, and 8 through 22.
8. Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K Rowling (107 million copies)
This book would have been an abject and well-deserving failure had it not been for Rowling’s inclusion, in the eleventh hour, of the iconic Mrs. Dursley. Her character really drives the plot along, and the showdown with the neighbours at the end of the novel is both suspenseful and beautifully paced. Unfortunately for Rowling, subsequent volumes displayed little of the flair that made the first one such a classic, and her decision to focus on minor characters like the tedious Harry clearly disappointed fans.
9. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (150 million copies)
Four twee critters modelled on English pig farmers are sent off to throw a ring away. You’d think the story could be wrapped up in time for second breakfast, but you’re forgetting the author’s fetish for insipid rhyming poetry, with which he goes on to pad out fully one half of this bloated tome.
The other half concerns itself with a love triangle between two of the pig farmers and a creature only marginally more revolting than they, which reaches a height of repressed homoerotic passion hitherto unseen in the annals of literature. Hesitant to fully air his fantasies in stodgy wartime Britain, the author casts one of the trio into a pit, marries the second off to the local bar-wench, and sends the third away to an even duller land over the sea.
A more reasonable man would have taken a long breather after spewing all this out. Not this bloke. He and the heirs to his estate proceeded to unleash a veritable typhoon of inconsequentia on the unsuspecting public, covering a history of about 5000 years, which coincidentally, is how long it will take you to read it.
10. The Bible – Various (12 trillion copies)
It’s probably unfair to include a book that was usually given away in a list of bestsellers, especially when the recipients were illiterate hunter gatherers who were just wondering if it might be edible. However, it warrants inclusion for sheer comedic value. The genocide and incest and fratricide and sodomy and torture that fills its pages might seem literal, but a closer reading reveals that these were subtle metaphorical devices used purely for laughs. A masterpiece of black humour well deserving of its title as the most printed book in history.