The best-selling book of all time

by on May 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm in Books, History, Political Science, Religion | Permalink

What is it, at least according to Wikipedia?  And I mean the best-selling real book, not linked to either religion or communism?  The answer is under the fold (no peeking?!)...

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, two hundred million copies.

Next in line is Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts book and then Lord of the Rings.

The full list is here, interesting throughout.  For the pointer I thank BrainPicker.  Here is a related post from Andrew Gelman.

1 Doug May 18, 2010 at 1:45 pm

It seems surprising to me that a tale of two cities has only sold two hundred million copies. I would have thought it was a lot more. Hasn’t EVERYONE read that?

2 Andrew May 18, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Wow. The Boy Scouts handbook is such a no-brainer, but didn’t occur to me at the time you were going over the most influential books.

I’m not sure why it counts if The Bible doesn’t. For that matter, why wouldn’t the Bible meet your criteria for fiction? I assume you mean because people have to buy those other books. Good point, whereas I just happened upon the boy scout handbook at the new book bin at B&N as a youth of 11 and said to myself, “this looks edifying.”

3 DaveyNC May 18, 2010 at 1:57 pm

How is “Huckleberry Finn” not on that list?

4 David L May 18, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Holy yikes. The good Chairman Mao accounts for fully 3 of the top 6.

I imagine the royalties thereof were distributed according to need.

5 gc May 18, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I wonder how that list would change if it was books that have actually been read, rather than books that i put on my bookshelf to feel/look cool.

6 Ted Craig May 18, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I didn’t see Ben-Hur on the list, which makes me really question its validity.

7 Will May 18, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I’m not sure that “most people” as claimed in the wiki footnote would consider LOTR as one book just because Tolkien conceived of it as one book. In fact, I would guess most people assume it’s three books. It was originally published as three books (which is likely why there are three movies) and usually published as three books. It’s not a series, either, though, so I suppose the issue is with calling the category “single-volume books” instead of “works” or something similar.

As long as we’re quibbling, the categorization of cookbooks, which have been continually reformulated, is sketchy.

I thought Roget’s would have been higher.

8 save_the_rustbelt May 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm

If you count the national spin offs of the BPs’ Scout handbook (the US version for example, now in 12th edition) the numbers would be quite impressive.

9 William P May 18, 2010 at 4:26 pm

“And I mean the best-selling real book, not linked to either religion or communism?”

The Bible is not a “real” book, then? What kind of a ridiculous assertion is this?

10 Bolonia May 18, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Lacking “El Quijote” by Cervantes, often recalled as the biggest novel of all times

11 Tim May 18, 2010 at 4:59 pm

“And I mean the best-selling real book, not linked to either religion or communism?”

Do you people have trouble with clauses? The bible is taken out of running in that it falls into the second clause – a book about religion. Whether it’s best-selling or real doesn’t matter in the case of the sentence above. Just as the sentence above doesn’t assert that “Capital” by Marx isn’t a real book.

12 Tyler Cowen May 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm

The Bible is a collection of texts, not written as a book *per se*.

13 Tyler May 18, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Interesting that the best selling book of all time has only sold 200 million copies — less than the number of views for the most-watched youtube video.

14 Yancey Ward May 18, 2010 at 7:55 pm

I would have thought it was a lot more. Hasn’t EVERYONE read that?

Well, a lot of people have probably claimed they did.

My guess was Lord of the Rings. I got close, and I did, at least, read that.

15 k May 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Wrong by far.English centered
Hugo ? Millions were at his funeral
Unreliable about don Quixote?
Faust? Werther?
Twain? Dumas? Balzac?
Madame Bovary?
The seven minutes?
Ben Franklin?
Hans Christian Andersen? Perrault? Grimm Brothers?
I Promessi Spossi?
Montaigne? Voltaire?
Social Contract?

16 TracyW May 19, 2010 at 3:12 am

I find this hard to believe. A Tale of Two Cities doesn’t seem to have had anywhere near the impact on popular culture as Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol (yes, the musical and the movie versions, but presumably they would have inspired a lot of people to buy the books, I’ve noticed that when a movie of a book is out the bookstores are full of reprints of said book with covers linking it to the movie). The only reference is to a media report, I think it’s entirely plausible that the source got the number wrong.

17 jimbino May 19, 2010 at 9:08 am

Who is John Galt and where is Atlas Shrugged?

18 Will May 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

jk, the estimates are different because it’s wikipedia.

jimbino, the Ayn Rand Institute estimates that more than 6 million copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold, so it doesn’t come close to making the list (

19 NevadaDave May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am

The interesting thing about the Lord of the Rings to me is that it can be thought of as 1, 3, or 6 books. 6, because each of Fellowship, Towers, and Return is divided up into (and labeled as) two books internally.

The Fellowship of the Ring: Book 1 (Shire to Rivendell), Book 2 (Rivendell to Rauros)

The Two Towers: Book 3 (follows Merry, Pippin, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn to the breaking of Isengard and just after), Book 4 (Follows Sam and Frodo to Cirith Umgol)

The Return of the King: Book 5 (Follows M,P,L,G,A to the Black Gate), Book 6 (Follows Sam and Frodo, rejoins the rest after the destruction of the
ring, and concludes the story).

20 Phil P May 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm

There are few literary classics in the list and it’s interesting that Tale of Two Cities ranked so high. I happened to have been assigned it in 7th Grade. It’s the first literary classic I remember reading in school. It’s easier than a lot of novels I had to read in high school, like Moby Dick. I wonder if it’s assigned a lot in school and that’s the explanation.

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