Reading classic literature is like going for a 6am jog. It has its loyal fans but few enjoy it. Most people want to tell others they do; sometimes people experiment with it, but mostly, people just don’t like it at all.
Curious to learn about what classics people actually enjoy, I delved into the Goodreads data to find what classics users love and hate the most.
Here are the top ten most beloved classics:
Here are the ten most hated classics:
Here are the top ten most popular classics, which likely corresponds with the list of books most assigned in American high schools:
Every book listed is a “great novel”. These books wouldn’t have been read hundreds of thousands of times if that weren’t the case. However, we can recognize a book as a “great novel” while also recognizing that many readers will not enjoy it.
These rankings matter because reading books you love is the gateway to a love of reading and reading books you hate is the gateway to a life without reading. Too often people are turned off from reading by being fed books they hate, either through school, or because the internet/friends make a certain book seem like it must be read.
Fundamentally, finding books you love is a forecasting challenge. What, out of all the books available, is the book you are most likely to love. When people consider assigning a classic novel in school, or recommending it to a friend, they should not think about how much they enjoyed that book or its literary merit, but based on all of the data and information available, how likely is that person to love the book.
The idea is not to replace reading great novels with easy, short and fun books, but to give a greater weight to the great novels that are more likely to be enjoyed by the average reader. Moby-Dick should not be abandoned for The Da Vinci Code in classrooms, but perhaps it could replaced by The Master and the Margarita or The Brothers Karamazov; books a larger number of people are likely to enjoy.
The data is quite clear. People HATE reading The Scarlet Letter. I would not be surprised to learn there are thousands of people whose aversion to reading stems from being assigned the Scarlet Letter or Heart of Darkness in school rather than East of Eden or To Kill a Mockingbird.
The data also reveals some interesting cultural trends. The first classic novel is Don Quixote which came out in 1615 but the next, Robinsoe Cursoe didn’t come out for more than 100 years later in 1719. The 1930’s produced significantly fewer classics than the surrounding decades, almost certainly as a result of the Great Depression and World War 2.
The two authors who produced the most classics are the British pair of Jane Austen with 6 and Charles Dickens with 5, followed by the American pair of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck with 4 each. This reflects the cultural reach of Britain during its empire and the evolution of American cultural hegemony. Just because an author produced a number of classics doesn’t make their books universally loved; Dickens books all score mediocre, while Hemingway is hated across the board and Steinbeck fares poorly beyond East of Eden. Jane Austen is unique as the only author with multiple truly beloved classics.
You can review the rest of the rankings here.
A note on the data:
Classics is defined by novels with over 100,000+ Goodreads reviews, written before 1970 and not targeted towards children or forming an integral part of a series. To determine the bayesian ranking, I used the formula: = (v ÷ (v+m)) × R + (m ÷ (v+m)) × C where:
R = average rating of the book
v = number of reviews for the book
m = minimum reviews required to considered a classic (100,000)
C = the mean vote across the whole report (currently 3.95)