All-Time Most Popular Books by Country
Humans started writing a long time ago, around 3300 B.C. in Mesopotamia. The first book was "The Epic of Gilgamesh" in 2100 B.C., and ever since then, books have been an integral part of the human condition as a source of exploration, education and entertainment.
Millions of books have been written, but only a few are masterpieces. And even fewer are the masterpieces of masterpieces. Works of literature so masterful they are the magnum opus of their homelands.
These are the greatest novels of all time by country.
Argentina: Santa Evita
Author: Tomás Eloy Martínez
Year published: 1995
What makes it a classic: Few figures have captured the heart and imagination of Argentina as first lady Eva "Evita" Perón. This is what author Tomás Eloy Martínez captures in his most famous novel, which has sold more than 10 million copies around the world.
The novel interweaves the life of Eva Perón before she was a public figure, the creation of the public devotion for her as Evita and what happens to her embalmed corpse — and to the decoy corpses the new government makes to distract her devotees — after her early death from cancer.
Australia: My Brilliant Career
Author: Stella Maria SarahMiles Franklin
Year published: 1901
What makes it a classic: What is so impressive about this novel is that it was written by a 16-year-old as a way to entertain her friends. Now one of the most iconic Australian novels, "My Brilliant Career" captures what many call "true" Australia, with vivid descriptions of life in the bush.
The novel is sometimes compared to the works of Jane Austen because of its strong female protagonist and its sharp social criticism.
Brazil: Dom Casmurro
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Year published: 1899
What makes it a classic: This isBrazil’s greatest novel. The turn-of-the-century book follows the inner thoughts of a jealous husband who believes that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend.
The novel is comedic in a dark way, leaving the readers to wonder whether the narrator is perceptive or delusional about the supposed affair.
China: Dream of the Red Chamber
Author: Cao Xueqin
Year published: Mid 18th-century
What makes it a classic: One of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, this work is so important that it has its own field of study called "Redology."
It was written during the Qing Dynasty and indirectly depicts the decline of the dynasty through the tale of the rise and fall of the narrator’s family.
The novel is also praised for its intricate depiction of society, as well as its use of various genres.
Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Year published: 1967
What makes it a classic: The greatest work of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" follows the intergenerational saga of the Buendia family in the fictional town of Macondo.
The novel is part of Colombian identity and has sold more than 50 million copies. It delves into introspective themes of love, duty and the hunger for knowledge as well as wider social themes of inequality, economic imperialism and war.
It is credited with being one of the first novels (if not the first) of the Latin American Boom movement and of magical realism.
Cuba: Tres Tristes Tigres
Author: Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Year published: 1967
What makes it a classic: Translated as "Three Trapped Tigers," the novel’s original title is an allusion to a popular tongue twister and actually means "three sad tigers."
The novel follows three working-class friends on a night around Havana. Written with so many colloquialisms that the author himself suggested reading it out loud, it captures the essence of the Cuban capital.
The original text was published in 1965, but the one available today was republished with edits after it was censured by Fidel Castro.
Czech Republic: The Metamorphosis
Author: Franz Kafka
Year published: 1915
What makes it a classic: Kafka’s unique surrealist style is so emblematic, it has become an adjective in itself. There is perhaps no work as Kafkaesque as "The Metamorphosis," which follows the life of a man who wakes up one day to find himself turned into a giant insect.
Though short, the story discusses the struggle with feeling useless in a society where your value is tied to production. It also examines family ties and the evolution of relationships.
Egypt: The Cairo Trilogy
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Year published: 1956-1957
What makes it a classic: "The Cairo Trilogy" is the best-known work by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988. It is also one of the most famous works written in Arabic.
The trilogy follows the lives of three generations of a family and is set in the backdrop of the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. Mahfouz depicts the sociopolitical changes of Egypt during this time, while also providing commentary into the passage of time.
Author: William Shakespeare
Year published: Circa 1599
What makes it a classic: Trying to decide on a single best Shakespeare novel is basically impossible and will probably cause some controversy. Still, if we are forced to decide (as we are now), we have to go with "Hamlet."
Shakespeare’s longest novel, it is also one that has been adapted over and over again. The tale of murder, madness and revenge sees the fall of the prince of Denmark and has all the elements of a Shakespearian classic, including tragically ironic twists of fate.
France: In Search of Lost Time
Author: Marcel Proust
Year published: 1913-1927
What makes it a classic: In 1909, Marcel Proust dipped a rusk (biscuit) in tea and felt the rush of a childhood memory come back. This powerful experience would eventually lead to a seven-part literary exploration of memory, purpose and the meaning of life.
France has given the world many literary masterpieces, but "In Search of Lost Time" tops all of them. The episode of the rusk, which in the book became a madeleine, is now famous, even being referenced in Disney’s "Ratatouille."
Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Year published: 1808-1831
What makes it a classic: In this tragic play, God and Mephistopheles, a demon, bet on the life of Faust, God’s favorite human.
What follows in Goethe’s most iconic and famous work is a tale of the deviance of the soul from the righteous path. The play delves into themes of philosophy, history and psychology.
It has inspired several other plays, novels and films.
Greece: The Odyssey
Year published: Circa eighth century B.C.
What makes it a classic: After the events of the Trojan War described in "The Iliad," Odysseus sets sail for his home island of Ithaca. Numerous catastrophes, unforeseen events and tragic coincidences prolong his journey home, causing it to last 10 years.
This ancient Greek novel is one of the most important works of Western literature and has even inspired a noun that describes a task that is unexpectedly and inexplicably difficult.
India: The Great Indian Novel
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Year published: 1989
What makes it a classic: Shashi Tharoor's satirical novel manages to exalt and criticize Indian society. The novel is a retelling of the Mahabharata, an epic Sanskrit poem and one of the most defining works of Indian literature. Except that the story is set in the first 30 years of the Indian independence.
The work has been praised and criticized for its irreverence to historic and political figures, and its bitting depiction of the country.
Author: Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi
Year published: Circa 977 and 1010
What makes it a classic: "Shahnameh" is considered the national epic of Iran, having cultural significance in other parts of the Persian Empire like Afghanistan, Armenia and Iran.
Translated as "The Book of Kings," it is one of the longest epic poems ever written. This literary masterpiece depicts the history of the Persian Empire and the world through mythical tales that are intertwined with historical events.
Author: James Joyce
Year published: 1922
What makes it a classic: You may never encounter someone who has read "Ulysses" in its entirety. And if you do, it is unlikely that they have actually understood it.
Drawing closely from "The Odyssey" — Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus — it tells the epic tale of a single day in Leopold Bloom’s ordinary life in Dublin. The work is one of the finest examples of stream of consciousness and is notoriously dense and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, it has managed to carve a name for itself in the literary canon.
The novel is so popular that its fans celebrate Bloomsday on June 16, the day in which the reader gets to follow Leopold Bloom around the Irish capital.
Italy: The Divine Comedy
Author: Dante Alighieri
Year published: 1472
What makes it a classic: Dante's three-part poem is an Italian literary work of excellence. It explores the afterlife from a medieval Christian perspective, going into hell, purgatory and paradise.
"The Divine Comedy" is credited with helping Tuscan language become Italian language as we know it today. The poem is one of the most important written works of all time.
Japan: The Tale of Genji
Author: Murasaki Shikibu
Year published: 1008
What makes it a classic: Considered the first modern novel in history, this Japanese saga follows the life of Genji, the son of the emperor and depicts life in the Heian Court.
"The Tale of Genji" was published in parts and enjoyed wild success among the high court of 11th-century Japan. So much so, that parts of the manuscript were stolen several times since people couldn't wait to see what happened.
The next time someone says women haven't contributed much to world literature, point them to this saga.
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat
Author: Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Year published: 1967
What makes it a classic: "A Grain of Wheat" is Kenya's most important novel. It is part of Ngugi’s famous trilogy and an indispensable work in the African literary canon.
The novel reflects on what the Kenyan independence has brought for the country and its citizens through events that occur days before the country celebrated breaking from the British Empire.
Though its focus is an overarching national — and even continental — theme of independence, the author leaves space to explore characters as individuals, thus creating a masterpiece.
Mexico: Pedro Paramo
Author: Juan Rulfo
Year published: 1955
What makes it a classic: Before magical realism took over Latin America, there was "Pedro Paramo." The only full-length novel published by Mexican literary master Juan Rulfo, it virtually changed the course of the continent's written tradition. Gabriel García Márquez claimed that this was the book that inspired him to write.
The story follows a man who goes to the remote town of Comala in search of his father. He finds little signs of life until he dies and is buried. Once underground, he begins to piece the story of what happened to his father and the town as those buried around him talk to themselves and to each other.
Nigeria: Things Fall Apart
Author: Chinua Achebe
Year published: 1958
What makes it a classic: Although Nigeria has many world-renowned authors like Odafe Atogun and Chimamanda Ngozi Aditchie, Chinua Achebe's importance is undeniable.
The author was one of the first to break through the Eurocentric literary world that had previously dismissed African writers. His most celebrated work, "Things Fall Apart" details life in a Nigerian village before and after the arrival of Europeans in the late 19th century.
The tale is engrossing and complex, and the novel has become a staple of classrooms around the world.
Peru: Conversation in the Cathedral
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Year published: 1969
What makes it a classic: As the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's most famous writer. Of his many works, "Conversation in the Cathedral" is his most important. In fact, the author famously said that if he had to save one single book from a fire, it would be this one.
The novel portrays the brutality and injustice of the dictatorship in Peru during the 1950s. The book's most famous line is "¿En qué momento se jodió el Perú?" or "When did Peru get screwed?"
The line has permeated into Peruvian mainstream culture and is used to express discontent with political or social happenings.
Russia: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year published: 1878
What makes it a classic: It's difficult to choose one Tolstoy work, let alone a work that represents Russian literature. Still, though "War and Peace" and Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" are close contenders, "Anna Karenina" simply cannot be equaled.
As most know, the story centers around a tempestuous and ultimately tragic love affair. But really it's so much more than that. The novel uses the titular character, her lover Count Vronsky and the characters that surround them to delve into Russian feudalism, questions of morality, the deep desires of the human soul, the destroying and unifying qualities of society and the meaning of life.
It is, more than anything, Tolstoy's philosophical and tortured investigation of the human condition.
Saudi Arabia: Cities of Salt
Author: Abdul Rahman Munif
Year published: 1984
What makes it a classic: This once banned book takes on the great cities and economies that have been built as a result of the discovery of oil in the Middle East. The book's title refers to the fragile and unsustainable nature of large glamorous cities that are almost entirely dependent on oil.
Book one of a five-part series, "Cities of Salt" is one of the most famous books written in Arabic, though many governments were not happy about its criticism of Arab elitism and the ruthlessness of Americans seeking to profit from the region's black gold.
South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country
Author: Alan Paton
Year published: 1948
What makes it a classic: This novel was, somewhat ironically, published in the same year as apartheid was established in South Africa. It illustrates in painfully personal details how the systems of official and unofficial racial discrimination have corroded society and the land itself.
Apartheid ended in the 1990s, but this novel is sadly relevant today. Not just in South Africa, but in many countries like the United States, which continue to grapple with the effects of systemic racism.
South Korea: The Nine Cloud Dream
Author: Kim Man-jung
Year published: 17th century
What makes it a classic: If there is one book every Korean knows about, it's "The Nine Cloud Dream," also translated as "The Cloud Dream of the Nine." This was the first Korean literary work to be translated into English.
The classic story details the spiritual journey of a monk who is allowed to fulfill all his earthly dreams. The Buddhist novel questions whether fulfilling everything we dream of can actually make us happy — a question everyone can relate to.
For a more modern Korean novel, we suggest reading "Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982."
Spain: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes
Year published: 1605-1615
What makes it a classic: Before the literary canon started making an effort to be less Eurocentric, "Don Quixote" was considered the first modern novel. And while Japan's "Tale of Genji" now holds that honor, it does not take away from Cervante's incredible achievements. After all, he did invent the modern novel in Europe.
The famous tale of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza follows a man who has been driven to madness by his obsession with stories of chivalry. Don Quixote goes on a delusional crusade where he completes futile tasks like fighting windmills he confuses with giants while the lucid Sancho Panza faithfully follows him.
The importance of this work cannot be overstated. "Don Quixote" is often considered the greatest book ever written.
Thailand: Four Reigns
Author: Kukrit Pramoj
Year published: 1953
What makes it a classic: Anyone looking to understand the profound changes Thailand underwent in the mid-20th century should look to this book.
While it's a fictional story told through the eyes of a young girl, it allows for a deep look into Thai history and society. The book is a staple in Thai classrooms and has been adapted into film.
Kukrit Pramoj, though a well-known writer, was also a member of the royal family and served as prime minister of Thailand. He thus has a unique perspective into the events he describes in the book.
Turkey: My Name Is Red
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Year published: 1998
What makes it a classic: Though this novel is set in 1591 in the Ottoman Empire, it is written in a decidedly postmodern style. Pamuk cited influences from Borges, Kafka, Eco and Proust for this playful story about miniaturists.
The work often breaks the fourth wall, as characters speak with self-awareness of being characters and reference the reader directly. Through unconventional narrators, Pamuk talks about 16th-century Ottoman philosophy, love and history.
The novel is one of the reasons that the author received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.
Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Year published: 2014
What makes it a classic: Spanning from 1750 to 2005, this novel follows the tale of the Kintu clan, as they grapple with the consequences of an intergenerational curse for 250 years. As the reader follows generations of the family, the history of what is now Uganda is peeled back layer by layer.
The book was celebrated for the unique way it uses different narrative styles, including Ugandan oral traditions, biblical themes and myths.
United States: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Year published: 1925
What makes it a classic: Is "The Great Gatsby" the greatest American novel? Very possibly. Though many American books have captured the essence of their time, none have done so as perfectly as this novel.
Following Nick Carraway's plunge into the Jazz Age in wealthy Long Island, the book takes readers on a journey through the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties. But as soon as you've gone into the deep end of the parties and the fascinating mystery of who the Great Gatsby is — all while ignoring Nick's and your own intuition that the shine is all gilded — Fitzgerald violently hits you with the grim realities hiding right underneath.
The work is undoubtedly a masterpiece that no adaptation has come close to capturing.