So, in 2020 you have decided to read more – all the self-help gurus say that it is good for you. But where to start with so many books out there? Why not start with some of the best-selling fiction books of all time. Some are new and have just taken the world by storm (cough, Harry Potter, cough), and some are classics that still manage to make it on the list despite the fact that we are spending much more books now than when they were published.
There is plenty to choose from! Just as a note, we have also excluded books for young kids (but not older kids) such as Thomas the Tank Engine, as this is probably not what you are looking for.
Don Quixote (1605-1615) Miguel de Cervantes (500 million copies)
The oldest and most popular book on this list, the Spanish title was originally published in two parts at the start of the seventeenth century and is considered one of the founding works of western literature, and perhaps the first modern novel. The work follows a noble man who has read too many chivalric romances and takes on the alter ego of Don Quixote in order to revive chivalry within his nation. Quixote lives in a grandiose world of his imagination, and he is accompanied by a simple farmer whose witty observations reveal reality to the reader.
Harry Potter Series (1997-2007) J.K. Rowling (450 million copies)
I don’t think that there is a person out there who has not heard of Harry Potter, an eleven-year-old boy who discovers that he is a wizard and that there is a magical world that exists in parallel to our own. He is sent off to a school for magic and witchcraft for seven years, where he discovers that he is at the centre of prophecy that will see his world turn into evil. With the help of his best friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, he manages to save the world several times, with a little help from some much less impressive adults. The world that Rowling has created is so fantastical and so real that children and adults from around the world have fallen in love with it.
Goosebumps Series (1992-1997) R.L. Stine (300 million copies)
A more successful horror author that Stephen King! R.L. Stine manages to deal with some truly scary ideas in a way that is still appropriate to engage children. His protagonists are children who find themselves in supernatural dangers that they must vanquish. The original series of 62 books were published between 1992 and 1997, and are still the best, and there have been a variety of spin off series since. Mixing horror and humour, adult authors will devour these easy reads quickly and they can be a great way to get back into reading.
Perry Mason Series (1933-1973) Erle Stanley Gardner (300 million copies)
The original crime procedural, these novels were originally published as stories in magazines, before being brought together in the 1930s. There are over 80 books in the series about the private detective who investigates crimes for his clients and always finds the definitive evidence to bring to the courtroom.
Sweet Valley High Series (1983-2003) Francine Pascal (250 million copies)
Francine Pascal actually oversaw an army of shadow writers to produce the 180 books in the Weet Valley High Series. The series focusses on identical twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, who deal with all of life’s normal trials, with the additional fun of having an identical twin. The series is like a teen soap opera in book form that may be nostalgic for some readers.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Charles Dickens (200 million copies)
Probably the most well-known of Dickens’ many works, this novel is set in London and Paris in the years before and during the French Revolution. It focusses primarily on a French doctor imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years who then finds himself released and moves to London with his daughter. It is a gritty portrayal of the Reign of Terror that has inspired several subsequent books and films including Les Miserables and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.
Robert Langdon Series (2000-2017) Dan Brown (200 million copies)
These novels by Dan Brown are like marmite. Some say that they are deeply fascinating, while others pedestrian. Some say that bring to light important religious stories, others call them blasphemy. The books all focus on Robert Langdon, a university professor who is an expert in codes. Through his profession he finds himself embroiled in a number of Christian mysteries which could cost him his life, if he doesn’t solve the code in time. The novels mix mystery and history in a way that has appealed to many readers.
The Little Prince (1942) Antoine de Saint-Exupery (142 million copies)
This children’s story gains interest as it was actually banned in France for several years under the Vichy Regime. The book focusses on a young prince who visits other planets, and through his experiences the book explores ideas of loneliness, friendship, love and loss. It makes surprisingly poignant observations about existence and what it means to be human.
The Chronicles of Narnia Series (1950-1956) C.S. Lewis (120 million copies)
Almost everyone has heard of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, a story about a group of London children who find themselves on a big country estate during the war. There they find a wardrobe that lets them pass into another land where magic exists, strange creatures and the norm, and time passes at a very different rate. This is actually only the first of seven books set in this mythical land created by C.S. Lewis.
The Twilight Saga (2005-2008) Stephanie Meyer (120 million copies)
A book series that is now well known thanks to the movies that starred Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, this is a young adult romance series about vampires. Many have criticized the series are romanticising evil creatures of the night and emotionally abusive relationships, but the books certainly hold something that appeals to young audiences. Suspend disbelief for a few hours and simply enjoy these stories for what they are, light, supernatural romances.
And Then There Were None (1939) Agatha Christie (100 million copies)
A classic closed house, who-done-it by Christie, eight strangers find themselves invited to the grand home of a noble gentleman. They soon discover that only do they not know each other, but they also don’t know their host. When he turns up dead there are a lot of questions to answer. This book was originally called Ten Little Niggers, after a song that features heavily in this book. Unsurprisingly, the name has since been changed, picking up on the final words of the song.
The Dream of the Red Chamber (18C) Cao Xueqin (100 million copies)
One of the four great classical Chinese novels, this book was composed in the 18th century under the Qing Dynasty and is considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature, and the east’s answer to Don Quixote. The book featured a huge range of characters (Game of Thrones style), allowing it to explore many different themes, and create a detailed observation of what life was like in 18th century courtly society in China.
The Hobbit (1937) J.R.R. Tolkien (100 million copies)
Definitely a different book to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this highly readable short novel (unlike the films) first introduced us to Tolkien’s world in a way that was fun and accessible. Bilbo Baggins was your everyday man (well hobbit) that found himself in an extraordinary situation. We meet the ring of power, but we aren’t yet sure of its true meaning. If you are a Tolkien fan, but you aren’t accustomed to reading, this is definitely where to start. I’m sure that the only reason that The Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t make it onto this list is that the first few chapters of the first book are just so damned hard to read!
She: A History of Adventure (1886-1887) H. Rider Haggard (100 million copies)
First published in serialised version in The Graphic, since it was published as a book in 1887, it has never been out of print. The story is told to us by Horace Holly, who visits a lost kingdom in the African interior. There he discovers an all-powerful queen, also known as She who must be obeyed. This story hasn’t dated as well as some of the others on the list, as it is clearly imperialist literature which treats African culture as inferior, but it is a fascinating look into the psyche of the day.
Fifty Shades Trilogy (2011-2012) E.L. James (100 million copies)
You must have been living under a rock not to have heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, a new light erotic series that quickly found an audience among female audiences. A young college graduate meets a young business man who introduces her to the world of BDSM, but, of course, below the surface of the erotic exchange lies true love. Once to read just to know what exactly it is that everyone is talking about.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) J.D. Salinger (65 million copies)
One of the most iconic books of all time, while it has never been made into a film, it features in so many films as the book that the cool hipster carries around. The book deals with angst, alienation and critiques superficial society, making it hugely popular among young people who view themselves as outsiders. Its protagonist Holden Caulfield is the ultimate teen outsider. Between 1961 and 1982 this was the most censored book in American high schools.
The Alchemist (1988) Paulo Coelho (65 million copies)
Written by a Brazilian author, this novel was quickly translated into a variety of languages and became an international hit. The book follows a young shepherd who decides to visit the pyramids of Egypt following a dream that he will find a great treasure there. It turns out that what he discovers on the journey is far greater than anything he will find at the end. The author famously wrote the novel in only two weeks (please hook up with George R.R. Martin and help him out).
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) Gabriel Garcia Marques (50 million copies)
Written by a Columbian author, in Spanish and then translated, this is a multi-generational story of the Buendia family who founded the fictitious town of Macondo in Columbia. The story explores the idea that history is bound to repeat itself, and that we are all bound to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Lolita (1955) Vladimir Nabokov (50 million copies)
The book that gave us the term Lolita for a young girl. The story is told by a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze. He becomes her stepfather, and then becomes sexually involved with the child. While the book deals with difficult sexual themes, it is not an erotic novel. It does deal with issues such as uncontrolled urges, shame, power, secrecy and loss.
Anne of Green Gables (1908) Lucy Maud Montgomery (50 million copies)
A classic children’s novel that has been adapted for the screen several times, it follows Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan who soon finds herself living in a new town with a spinster brother and sister. She brings new energy into their world, and controversy to the town with her headstrong ways and unwillingness to accept the status quo. She also made having red hair cool.