What Are the Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels?

alex atkins bookshelf books“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” wrote the brilliant Italian writer Italo Calvino. “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.” And naturally, that is why students are introduced to the classics in elementary and middle school, and explore them more deeply in high school and college.

Even though all classics have something to say, they are not universally liked by students and readers (we will address this a little later). Moreover, the classics are not always taught in the best possible way. In a thought-provoking essay, On Teaching Literature, Victoria Best, a former lecturer of French literature at Cambridge University, discusses the responsibilities that teaching literature places on both the teacher and the student, as well as the challenges that they face. When Best had an opportunity to teach literature, it was time for a critical assessment of pedagogical approaches to literature: “When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.”

As she carefully examined her interactions with her students, Best came to appreciate how literature challenged students and the many obstacles that students faced in fully engaging with literature. She identifies four major obstacles. The first obstacle is the expression of thoughts and emotions: “At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing.

The second obstacle is the discipline that literature requires: “[Students] bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organize their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument.”

The third obstacle is the ability to think deeply and slowly: “This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.”

The fourth obstacle is narcissism. Indeed, great literature shakes us from our complacency — even more critical today as individuals become more isolated in their digital-device-created bubbles, oblivious to life’s nuanced ebbs and flows. Best continues the discussion: “For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side — forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful — they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.”

Best concludes with an eloquent and inspirational testimony about why it is important to study literature: “This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.”

So let us return to the initial question: what are the classic novels that readers like the most and those that are liked the least? Where can we find that data? Enter Daniel Frank, a public policy expert and attorney, who turned to the rich data at GoodReads generated by hundreds of thousands of readers. Frank developed an algorithm to examine the rankings of the classics dividing them into the highest-ranked (most liked) and the lowest-ranked (most hated). So what did he find? Frank writes: “The data also reveals some interesting cultural trends. The first classic novel is Don Quixote which came out in 1615 but the next, Robinsoe Crusoe 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 II. 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.” Here are Frank’s lists of the most liked and the most hated classic novels.

The Most Liked Classic Novels:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
1984 by George Orwell
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kessey
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Phantom Toolbooth by Norton Juster
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Most Hated Classic Novels:
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Moby-Dick, or, the Whale by Herman Melville
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Why Study Literature?
Why Read Dickens?

The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

What is a Classic Book?

For further reading: https://litlove.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/on-teaching-literature/
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature by Joseph Epstein
Dan Frank: danfrank.ca/the-most-loved-and-hated-classics-according-to-goodreads-users/


7 responses to “What Are the Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels?

  • Marushka

    Thank you for your writing! You had me at Italo Calvino. That said, I loved your quote of Ms. Best on “slow thinking” – the slow accumulation of and engagement with knowledge from diverse sources. This type of thinking is incompatible with an educational system obsessed with quick results and test scores. There are books I read as a child of 8 or 10 which I am only now finding an understanding for.

    • Alexander Atkins

      Marushka: Thank you for your kind note. The classics have much to teach — but the critical issue is that they have to be taught properly and as you mentioned, that is essentially incompatible to an entrenched educational system focused on quick results. Cheers. Alex

  • Genealogy Jen

    I despised Madame Bovary. Glad to see that I’m not the only one.

  • boromax

    Such a wondrous article; so filled with staggeringly potent imagery! “the curious combination of creativity and discipline,” “test-oriented desire for tickable answers,” “digital-device-created bubbles,” “loosen our stranglehold on certainties,” “stories form the great building block of existence.” And, of course, Daniel Frank’s list. Simply, edible.

    • Alexander Atkins

      Hi Ed: Thanks for your kind note. There is definitely an important discussion to be had about the importance of the classics but also the importance of teaching them properly. There is an art to teaching. Having been a student, and mentoring college students today, the sad reality is that not every teacher understands that knowing a topic really well is not sufficient to engage students. Great teaching requires a certain level of drama (performance), passion, and engaging students in Socratic dialogue. Many college students today are simply not engaged by teachers who fail to lead them through the wondrous, thought-provoking journey through the classics. When I ask college students: who is your favorite teacher this semester? there is a long pause and no one teacher really stands out. Moreover, many classes today are taught online. Cheers. Alex

      • boromax

        You: Preaching. Me: Choir. Sad that students cannot name a teacher they would consider their favorite. I have been in the world of education (teaching, training, counseling, coaching, public speaking) for many years. The online phenomenon is a tough one; or, more precisely, online education is a gigantic collection of “tough ones.” I have used several different “Learning Management Systems,” and I was designing and delivering “Web-Based Training” in the early days (late ’90s). I am still convinced there is no substitute for in-person sessions.

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: