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)
Pingback: Saturday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
Where did you get the GR data from?
How are you the first to comment? =]
Also I wonder if he got the idea from you, you both got the idea from somewhere else, or it was just floating in the ideosphere.
The lord of the rings is notably missing. Not written for kids for sure. Usually wins best novel contests. And shakespeare is normally thought to be best of the best. Not novel format?
Why are those two missing in particular?
Shakespeare didn’t write novels; LOTR is part of a series.
THanks. Clear answers
The Lord of the Rings is a single, standalone book. Often broken up into 3 parts. It is part of a legendarium, a mythology, not quite part of a series.
LOTR is actually 6 books, 2 per volume. 3 volumes !
I was really expecting Ethan Frome to top the list of most hated classics.
Yes, yes, the execrable Ethan Frome. Inflicting untold damage on generations of high school sophomores.
Perhaps the most loved classics make the reader feel “good” in some plot-related way, and the most hated make the reader feel “bad”?
To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, made me feel virtuous when I was 15.
Great insight here. I would like to see some of the distibution of evaluations, though, in addition to mean scores. I think some of the “hated” books are even *more* likely to be favorites of others whereas those with the highest mean scores have to appeal to everyone at least a little — the vanilla ice cream of books.
To Kill A Mocking Bird treats black people like dumb animals.
I disagree with your statement, although I haven’t read it for quite some time. In my opinion, the author does not treat black people as animals. She was relating the horrific general thought of the white people in the South (and elsewhere in the country) at the time the novel took place. She was actually establishing that black people are not animals, they are humans just like any others in the novel. She clearly showed in her novel that the “bad” people, the “animals” were the ignorant whites.
I had to read A Separate Peace in grade 9 in Canada in 1978 as our intro novel. The assumption that this book about private school kids in the “50’s would be universal was a quiet joke among us. The relentless search for “symbols” and “meaning” within the text in order to correctly fill out the essay assignment destroyed my love of fiction for about a year.
Fifty years later still love all kinds of reading despite best efforts of educators to wreck the impulse.
Nah. It’s just a weak book. I went to Exeter (“Devon Academy”) and we could identify with pretty much all the school aspects–but it still wasn’t particularly popular! 🙂
what no lord of the flies? should be right in there with Orwell’s other bedtime classics.
The way kids learn to love reading is by being read to.
I think it’s difficult to separate books that have tons of ratings from books books that are actually popular. If anything you need to remove the ratings of those who read these books in HS and only consider the votes of those who didn’t.
Otherwise it’s like trying to figure out the “most popular” parties by adding up votes from both socialist-bloc countries and liberal democracies: necessarily the top-ranking parties would be the communist parties. But of course that completely ignores the coercive element! 🙂
I think this tells us more about Goodreads ratings than about good books.
The hated list are generally better books than the loved list.
Otoh, where would you find a collection of hard-core pleasure readers, drawn from all walks of life, independently rating millions of titles since 2006?
We see these Top 10 lists generated by from academic groups & teachers all the time. Entire curriculums are ginned up from the “Great Books” catalog.
There is something to be said for the judgment of informed & broadly read amateurs, a class between academics & the general population.
“informed & broadly read amateurs” haha What goodreads reviews are you reading?
Goodreads is a cesspit of genre fans bashing literature because “I just couldn’t relate to the protagonist” or because the prose was more complicated than a street sign. Goodreads reviews are just a measure of a book’s readability and potential for escapism.
Do you really believe The Godfather is a “classic novel”?
I totally agree with you. I read it years ago and although a page turner, that is all it is. It certainly is not a work of lasting artistic quality, unlike the film adaption.
I’ll admit to not having read most of these books. Of those I did read, I loved Moby Dick. The Great Gatsby was a long hard slog by comparison. I also loved To Kill a Mocking Bird. To MortMain’s comment. I think the ideas was to point out that black people were treated as animals and to highlight how awful that was and the level of injustice built into the system.
I’m not sure how well Gulliver’s Travels has held up. It’s rather like reading SF from the 1950s. The themes may be timeless but the realization of those themes is off-putting and somewhat trite. I do realize that at the time of its writing it was a ground breaking work.
Pingback: The Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels According to Goodreads Users | ensafh
I hated the scarlet letter. It put me off from reading in general.
Pingback: The Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels According to Goodreads Users | Later On
This is a terrible thing to publish. It discourages reading the classics simply because people don’t enjoy them — a fact — not because they SHOULDN’T enjoy them — a value. If kids are turned off from reading classics it’s a failure on the part of the teacher but also of their own mental faculties, because these are books everyone can learn from. If you pressed a reader who disliked Moby Dick I doubt you’d get an intelligible, reasonable answer, having nothing to do with the narrative or literary devices employed. They’d resent the language as hifalutin, instead of immersing themselves in Melville’s fantastic world, because we’ve forgotten what it means to think historically. Bottom line, every classic is beyond complete comprehension—do yourself a favor and try to reach up to the mind of the author rather than disparage willy-nilly. Also, “fewer”** classics in the 1930s—this article’s author clearly practices what he preaches (doesn’t read classics)
Thank you x 100, DL!
As a writer, I was getting rather depressed reading the other comments.
Geoff Hill, London UK
wow, the numbers are fascinating to me, I can’t believe how low some of my favorites are
I love the idea of your “Bayesian ranking,” which I assume is predicated on the assumption that novels will regress toward the mean the greater the number of ratings they have. How did you calculate it?
I was cheering for the whale long before the end of the story.
More credible if the name of the author Ken Kesey had been spelled correctly.
The relative positions of the books are interesting but the claim that a rating of 3.5 stars out of 5 is an indication of HATRED is a bit strong, IMO. 3.5 is a decent rating.
LOTR is not a series. It is a single novel in six books and an appendix published in three volumes.
Personally I enjoyed ‘Scarlet Letter’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’. Also if you look at these ratings the allegedly ‘hated’ classics rate slightly less than the ‘loved’ classics ie not universally hated at all. Consequently I would say the conclusion of this article is flawed.
Happy NOT to see Huck Finn as a favorite – but a little surprised that it’s not on any list.
I read 1984, Animal Farm + Catcher in the Rye in high school on my own…they would have been considered “unsuitable” for students at that time…60’s.
Most high school Literature (English teachers) do not know how to TEACH the classics.
Pingback: 5 Links, Books, and Things I Love - February 2020
Unfortunately you have done it again – top loading with American sensibilities and bias without attempting anything like a global perspective. It represents wilfully turning inwards yet again. There is no Chekhov. There is no Camus. There are none of the great east Asian poets. Perhaps you should always warn us in your heading that this list is from American users or readers. Then we will not be disappointed – just prepared yet again for the great white blindness blowing like a blizzard from the great plains where Sitting Bull lies.
Speaking of books that degrade African Americans — “Gone With the Wind”? Maybe the schools should teach “Invisible Man” or Douglass’s “Narrative” as a corrective.
If you want genre fiction that’s actually well written, I’d recommend Ruth Rendell or John LeCarre over Agatha Christie.
The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, A Separate Peace, Things Fall Apart, and Madame Bovary are all wonderful reads despite being in your most hated list.
I agree with the contributor who says they’d rather read the “most hated” rather than the “most loved” books. Also, as a non-US reader, it’s noticeable, tho hardly surprising, that half or more of each list are from that place. And even then, not necessarily the best of AmLit. Apart from The Whale!
Pingback: Random Reading Thoughts: How do you feel about the classics? – Derby Public Library's Blog
Pingback: Chester Himes and his mysteries, the books you love and hate, and Agatha’s greatest story: newsletter, February 7, 2020 | JPROF.com
Thanks! This was a great read! I chuckled when I noticed A Separate Peace was hated. I was the only kid in class that loved reading it.
I think you’re right about there being a correlation between loving /hating classic literature and school. So many American families don’t incorporate classic literature into their daily lives, so many children are ONLY being exposed to the classics while at school. It takes a great teacher to instill a love of literature. =)
Great post,Thank you for sharing
great article thank you
so provincial these readers. I mean nothing from Europe, nor Japan for instance. Social Media is populated by the digitally demented
The Goodreads lists are so interesting!
I read The Road after it was suggested by my son. It found it so depressing and didn’t like it at all.
Catcher in the Rye had me talking like a wise guy for days afterward!
I read the opening chapter of Moby Dick and then the book fell apart in my hands. I loved it! Melville’s voice reminded me so much of my dad.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time tozz (to) get to sea as soon as I can.”
It cracked me up!
I might be related to Herman through my great great grandmother, Mary Melville from Scotland, so I have a soft spot for him.
Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!
Pingback: What Are the Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels? | Atkins Bookshelf
Pingback: How five authors are changing the YA world (This week in books) - Nathan Bransford | Writing, Book Editing, Publishing
Interesting that the female-written books don’t fall under the most read/hated books. We should probably read more books by women authors.
Pingback: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Classic Novels – Weekends in Paradelle
Great article! I’ve learned with my ADD child that, while I often want to suggest books to him, he’s going to read what he wants to read. And I’m glad that he’s reading, so I don’t complain. I was a straight A AP student in high school, except for (basic) English. I passed the year with a 70 ONLY because I “interpreted” a poem (that I wrote) in my high school literary publication for extra credit. I dreaded reading most of the books that were required, and even when they offered a list of 50 books to pick from… guess what, I threw up in my mouth a little at all of those too. I much preferred the British literature studies and the epics from long ago, and enjoyed college level study much more than I ever did in high school. I will definitely continue to suggest books to him, but if he never picks any of them up… I’ll be alright. He’ll read what he wants, even if it’s Pokemon and “Bad Kitty”, and I doubt he’ll graduate without knowing how to read. Sometimes, we’re just not wired that way.
Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 02-20-2020 | The Author Chronicles
How lucky I feel to have had teachers who brought some of these “least favorites” to life for me so indelibly!
Funny, too, to reflect on my memories of being taught these books. American Literature through 1865, sophomore year at Vassar, the week we read the Cetology chapter of Moby Dick and that almost-cute guy with the ill-advised mustache raised his hand and announced to the class, “I kind of like baby whales.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than he realized what he’d said and turned as red as his jacket.
Or a couple years earlier at my public high school in Las Vegas, when my classmates and I, bored after the AP exam, recapped the plot of Things Fall Apart in song to the tune of That’s Amore: “When the shit hits the fan and you’re banned from your clan, that’s Achebe!” (We did sing this to our class and it was only our collectively high GPA that kept us out of the dean’s office.)
Not listed, but I also like to pull my copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis off the shelf when I visit my parents’ house to find the drawing of a cockroach that I did in ballpoint pen fifteen years ago in the back of English III Honors. I love to read now as much as I ever have, but sometimes I wish I could recapture the totally un-self-conscious, consuming, obsessive joy of reading something encompassing with a wacky, excited teacher at the helm.
This is great. I had already felt a little unmotivated to finish Gulliver’s Travels, and found that I must not be alone once I saw it’s on the “Top Ten Most Hated” list.
Regardless, I love-hate Gulliver’s Travels in reality. I love each adventure in of itself. However, I don’t like the fact that the book is merely a collection of short journeys.
Although I found this quite interesting, and I applaud your efforts, I believe the criteria by which you selected books for inclusion in this informal study was rather flawed.
Primarily, to base whether or not a novel is a “classic” on the number of GoodReads reviews injects bias of several types into the ‘study’ from the very beginning.
I do not think it is possible to glean much generalizable information regarding this topic due to the high degree of selection bias amongst other methodological flaws.
I really think this was well intended, and likely NOT meant to be as serious as i just wrote comments about above. However, should you or anyone else wish to pursue this more deeply, perhaps my comments may be useful.
While I do agree that unpleasant books can cause an aversion to reading, it appears that repeatedly being required to read books that would not be chosen on one’s own, as well as not having adequate access to read preferential books and other materials, over time either erodes enthusiasm about reading, or prevents it from developing in the first place.
On the other hand, if someone has access to books, magazines, comics, etc. that one enjoys reading on a consistent basis, and does not solely experience reading as something that has to get done to pass a class… then a ripe opportunity for a love of reading to grow is present.
I experienced the later. Although we had books that were required reading for most of my education; another part of English/language arts included reading books of our own choice. I believe this made a huge difference, not so much in myself (because I read at home, at the library, etc.) but in students who would likely hate books if the situation first described were the case.
Thank you for an intriguing commentary and the facts you gathered. I enjoyed spending time thinking about this concept and the various ways it may still be impacting out society’s educational system.
I love classics! And i know alot of people who do so too so the statement “most people hate classics” is not really true. Yes there are very good ones (pride and prejudice, 1984, anything by Dumas) and really bad ones which are a chore to get through. But overall i love classics .. and hate the 6 am run 😉
All of that fictional garbage would be out of print if the school systems weren’t shoving superfluous writings down student’s throats. I learned to hate this nonsense in high school. Please let these works of fantasy die a natural death. Reading this nonsense doesn’t put beans in anyone’s pot. Again there is no practical use for there writings unless one wants to be a Jeopardy contestant.
Well, let’s nevermind the classics for a moment… I went through a vampire phase a while back. The posterchild for BAD novels that became POPULAR? Especially in the vampire genre? Twilight. Second runner up? Interview with a Vampire. Yeah I can hear all the Ann Rice fans falling out of their chairs. Seriously, if that’s all you know, you’ve never read a vampire tale by someone who knows how to craft a story. For that, we need to go to the relatively obscure and underrated Vampire Files and Gentleman Vampire series by P. N. Elrod. Yup, she’s on Goodreads.