Is there a "universal" book?
March 14, 2007 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Which book would you consider a "universal" book?

As a new librarian who formerly worked in book publishing, I am well aware that there are hundreds of thousands of books published each year. Of course, some become bestsellers but many are never heard from again.

This led me to wonder which books (if any) could be considered "universal" books (for example, if you wanted to do a library display about these transcendent books.)

This is the criteria I came up with:
- a book that's likely to have been read by English-speaking readers anywhere in the world (and also widely in translation)
- people will have read it across multiple generations without it going in and out of fashion
- it's *not* a book that people widely own but often don't read thoroughly (ie. The Bible, A Brief History of Time)
- it's *not* a story that people know because it's part of our culture but that the majority might not have read in book form (fables, "A Christmas Carol")
- doesn't matter if its highbrow (Hamlet) or lowbrow (Stephen King), fiction or non-fiction (or any genre for that matter)

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by Jaybo to Media & Arts (57 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Winnie the Pooh?
posted by divka at 1:51 PM on March 14, 2007

A lot of Dr. Seuss' stuff, but particularly The Cat in The Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.

Adult books are trickier. On the Road, maybe?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:54 PM on March 14, 2007

Harry Potter? It doesn't satisfy the time / generations criteria, but it satisfies all the others. It even has wide readership in non English language territorities.

Perhaps 1984.. Lord of the Rings.. Lord of the Flies.. etc? Lord of the Flies would probably be my top choice for satisfying your criteria as the story is commonly read by English speakers all over the world (unlike, say, Catcher in the Rye, which tends to be more US centric) .
posted by wackybrit at 1:54 PM on March 14, 2007

Looking at this list, I'm going to say it's Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None or The Lord of the Rings, if you're discounting religious texts.
posted by muddgirl at 1:55 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: I want to say Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is extremely widely translated (wikipedia says 160 languages) and applicable to both children and adults, which probably explains the 50 million copies sold.

It's relatively new, so that might not agree completely with your "across multiple generations", but there is something to be said about generations that read it twice...
posted by KevCed at 1:55 PM on March 14, 2007

Addendum to my previous post: Winnie the Pooh has been translated into 25 languages.

My Russian friend had some adorable Russian Winnie the Pooh cartoons. He looks different than the American version and is awfully cute.
posted by divka at 1:56 PM on March 14, 2007

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
posted by gnutron at 1:56 PM on March 14, 2007

The Catcher in the Rye.
posted by hermitosis at 1:58 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Alice In Wonderland.

I recall reading somewhere that it was the most quoted book in the world (aside from holy books).
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:58 PM on March 14, 2007

I would say the Cat in the Hat & Winnie the Pooh as well. That or the dictionary, if that counts.
posted by cashman at 1:59 PM on March 14, 2007

The Bridge at San Luis Rey
Lord of The Flies
The Day Lincoln Was Shot
The Diary of Anne Frank
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:01 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Hamlet, indeed, although universal appeal and universal meaning are very different concepts.
posted by carmen at 2:05 PM on March 14, 2007

Although a couple are long poems they usually circulate in "book" form. Or did you mean exclusively novels? The KJV and Common Prayer are widely known and had a great deal of influence on the language.

Paradise Lost
The Pilgrim's Progress
Oliver Twist and/or A Tale of Two Cities
Le Morte d'Arthur
Shakespeare's more popular plays
The King James Bible
The Book of Common Prayer
A Farewell to Arms (or other Hemingway)
Gulliver's Travels
posted by MasonDixon at 2:05 PM on March 14, 2007

I'd say Don Quixote fits all your criteria, although it is questionable whether most people actually read the whole thing.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:08 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Never read most of the books metioned above (i'm Belgian by the way), except for Anne Frank's diary and the Catcher in the Rye.

Some of the French classics known around the world:
Le Petit Prince
Les Miserables
Sans Famille/Nobodo's Boy

Do Americans know Roald Dahl?

(on preview: some Shakespeare seems to work as well, and Winnie the Pooh of course)
posted by lodev at 2:10 PM on March 14, 2007

KevCed, I assume you mean The Little Prince? I would heartily agree with that one. It seems to be marketed as a children's book, but like Alice in Wonderland, it certainly has those parts that, when you reread it as an adult, make you chuckle with the realization of what you didn't get the first time.

I would think that these child/adult books are really good choices--accessible by children, but with added depth for adults.
posted by that girl at 2:12 PM on March 14, 2007

It's not like movies, there aren't many books that everyone's read, simply because most people don't read much.

There are classic high school English class books: Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Huckleberry Finn, 1984.

Some very widely-read popular books: Carrie or The Shining, The Andromeda Strain, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Tough question. There are an enormous number of books that are highly influential but not popularly read (e.g., anything Greek, anything philosophical or political, Kafka, Moby Dick, James Joyce, etc.).
posted by Khalad at 2:12 PM on March 14, 2007

I agree with "Alice", but also would suggest "A Study in Scarlet" or any of the Sherlock Holmes books.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:12 PM on March 14, 2007

Voltaire's Candide although not really an english work is pretty widely admired. Jack London's Call of the Wild maybe? Winnie the Pooh was definitely popular in Russia although they did have their own modified versions. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
posted by JJ86 at 2:17 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer fit your criteria, as does the Canterbury Tales. Not many low-brow books outlast their generations.

You may get farther on this project by looking into the books traditionally captured under the "canon" -- though I'm guessing you probably know about this. The debate over the canon is a pretty fascinating cultural phenomenon.
posted by ontic at 2:18 PM on March 14, 2007

Books of Jules Verne:
Journey to the Center of the Earth,
Five Weeks in a Balloon,
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
... etc.
posted by randomDirtPattern at 2:19 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Thirding the Harry Potter, even though it doesn't satisfy the time requirement. Basically because of the news that came out today - that book 7 is going to break first printing records, a record that book 6 held before it.

12 million books in the first printing. And 325 million sold - damn...

posted by jourman2 at 2:19 PM on March 14, 2007

lodev asked:
Do Americans know Roald Dahl?

I think everyone is familiar with Willy Wonka.
posted by JJ86 at 2:20 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Here's OCLC's Top 1000 most commonly held books.
posted by cog_nate at 2:21 PM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.
posted by bru at 2:24 PM on March 14, 2007

Homer's Odyssey
posted by The Straightener at 2:25 PM on March 14, 2007

that girl: Yep, definitely meant The Little Prince. I guess I pasted over it when I copied the author's name from Google.
posted by KevCed at 2:26 PM on March 14, 2007

Dangerous Liasons
posted by ReiToei at 2:33 PM on March 14, 2007

Emma, by Jane Austen
posted by ReiToei at 2:34 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Those choosing a book for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs already have The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare, as they're deemed to be obvious choices for most people.
posted by liquidindian at 2:40 PM on March 14, 2007

I'd go with books about the universe, since that's the only thing that's universal.
posted by medusa at 2:40 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: I'm pretty sure more people have read at least part of the Bible (eg a few specific psalms, the Lord's Prayer) than any other single book. Granted, it's more rare to read it all the way through. Koran probably runs a very close second.

Childrens' books are a good bet - Alice, Peter Pan?, Hans Christian Andersen, Bros Grimm, Dr Seuss, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak?

I think the Little Prince is a great bet, for super-widely translated.

Diary of Anne Frank is an excellent bet
The Communist Manifesto
Mao's Little Red Book (maybe too regional?)
Origin of Species??
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Philosophical or Quasi-philosophical:
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (groan)
The Stranger by Camus
The Metamorphosis by Kafka
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (or similar self-help/business type book)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:48 PM on March 14, 2007

Beowulf might fit the criteria. I think it's a standard part of any undergrad humanities class. Not sure if it's fallen in/out of fashion though.
posted by quadog at 2:50 PM on March 14, 2007

Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid
posted by uncballzer at 3:00 PM on March 14, 2007

Moby Dick
posted by rikschell at 3:09 PM on March 14, 2007

Up until the late nineteenth/twentieth century:
Plutarch's Lives
The works of Cicero
Ovid, Metamorphoses
Sallust, Dio Cassius, etc.
posted by nasreddin at 3:29 PM on March 14, 2007

I'm glad I'm not the only person who immediately thought of Le Petit Prince.
posted by Xere at 3:30 PM on March 14, 2007

Don't know if books you were forced to read in school count, but it seems like everyone loves and has read To Kill a Mockingbird.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:31 PM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: According to this BBC article, Harry Potter (at least book 4) should be counted as one of those books people own but don't read thoroughly.
posted by bokinney at 4:23 PM on March 14, 2007

Yeah, I have to agree with Slarty Bartfast. To Kill a Mockingbird is about as universal as you can get. I read it in grade school (identified with Scout) read it again in highschool where I identified with Boo, read it two years ago, and I'm saw thing more from Aticus' perspective.

Each reading gave me a very different look at the same events. Not many books can do that.

To a lesser extent, Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn might also be appropriate, but I'd go with Mockingbird for the win.
posted by quin at 5:06 PM on March 14, 2007

Le Petit Prince was the first book to come to mind.
posted by gursky at 5:57 PM on March 14, 2007

Pride and Prejudice.

Is To Kill A Mockingbird widely read outside North America?
posted by joannemerriam at 6:42 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: I don't see To Kill a Mockingbird as universal to anyone but American(high school student)s. People who have never dealt with the particular racism issues, American law, or school pageants that make up that story will have no idea what the heck is going on.

I immediately thought of Alice and The Little Prince. Fantasy stands a very good chance of being understood by an extremely large number of people. I also recently read about a Shakespeare play being performed by an Afghani theater troupe, in Afghanistan.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:45 PM on March 14, 2007

Curious George.
posted by bryon at 7:06 PM on March 14, 2007

Is To Kill A Mockingbird widely read outside North America?

I don't see To Kill a Mockingbird as universal to anyone but American(high school student)s. People who have never dealt with the particular racism issues, American law, or school pageants that make up that story will have no idea what the heck is going on.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been on the national secondary (high) school curriculum here in Ireland for years and years. It's a very easy book to digest, even for young teenagers. In fact, if you don't have an idea of what the heck is going on, you might as well give up reading altogether.

It's certainly no Ulysees which, incidentally, is on the Irish curriculum occasionally too.
posted by ReiToei at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2007

I've heard it suggested that prior to the 20th Century one of those popularly held and read books (outside of the Bible) was 1001 Arabian Nights. Of course I don't think that book is as popular as it once was.
posted by mmascolino at 7:20 PM on March 14, 2007

re: To Kill a Mockingbird, see page 13 of the English language syllabus for Irish secondary schools.

This is the junior cycle of the syllabus. I'd say that's pretty universal.
posted by ReiToei at 7:28 PM on March 14, 2007

My Antonia, and O Pioneers by Willa Cather.
(She won the Pulitzer for O Pioneers, but I prefer Antonia.)
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell.
(A timeless/ageless/culture-crossing book. It won the Newberry in 1961.)
Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz
(Written in the 1800's in Poland and translated into more than 40 languages.)

Definitely Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Yes, Americans know Roald Dahl, although I liked Danny, The Champion of the World much better than his others that are better known.
posted by onemorething at 8:41 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: I'm sort of surprised not to see The Scarlet Letter since I read it in three different English classes between 4th and 12th grade. I guess I read it enough times to make up for everyone else, but I always figured it was something American students had to read with the same emphasis as To Kill a Mockingbird. Is it uniquely American? In a sense, I guess.

So, I'm going to cast my vote with the rest of the world: it's all about Alice.

I'd also say you could add in some comic strip collections. While not everybody has read the same Peanuts book, everybody's read Peanuts in some form, and it's been translated into gazillions of languages. I would imagine that Calvin and Hobbes, while relatively new, will stand on its own two feet for generations to come as well.
posted by crinklebat at 9:40 PM on March 14, 2007

Crime and Punishment. It's short for a Russian novel, and it's a page-turner.
posted by lukemeister at 9:41 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Color me surprised not to have seen Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. Timeless and a big part of the fondness with which I remember childhood.
posted by OneOliveShort at 10:05 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: I'll add a vote for The Diary of Anne Frank , but what about some other Holocaust literature? In particular, Night, but Elie Wiesel seems to have both staying power and recent attention (thanks to Oprah).

Also, on the darker notes, what about Heart of Darkness or Slaughterhouse Five?
posted by reader-writer at 10:17 PM on March 14, 2007

I guess I never realized how American centric To Kill a Mockingbird was. Admittedly, my formative years readings probably colored my opinions.

I'm also a little bit ashamed that I didn't thing of Alice. It really deserves a universal title.
posted by quin at 11:08 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: The Adventures of Tintin has been translated into many languages and read by several generations.
posted by D.C. at 1:01 AM on March 15, 2007

I think Robinson Crusoe is pretty well traveled, so to speak.
posted by Orinda at 8:46 AM on March 15, 2007

I was going to say the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, but both of those seem closely tied to "western civilization".
posted by ztdavis at 8:59 AM on March 15, 2007

Response by poster: If anybody's still checking back to this thread, here's a blog post where I originally posted this question.

I really wanted to mark every answer as "best answer" (has anybody ever done that in AskMF?) but ended up going through and picking the ones that resonated with me personally or which provided links to more information.

What else? I didn't intend it to discount religious texts, it's just that I was trying to restrict the choices to works commonly held within the container we know as a "book" (as opposed to individual poems, parables, folklore, etc.)

Religious works do come in book form but my other qualification is that many people own these works but very few read them cover-to-cover, even if they know parts very well (psalms, parables, etc.) This observation is completely based on limited observation - I have no idea if that is the case in reality for the majority of people who own religious texts.

As you'll see if you click to my blog, I waffled a lot (in the comments with librarian colleagues) but ended up picking "The Diary of Anne Frank" as my own choice of the book that came closest to answering my question (until I change my mind again!)

Thanks for all the great suggestions!
posted by Jaybo at 4:54 PM on March 22, 2007

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