The Rise of Literacy in Europe


While the word ‘bestseller’ was coined in the late 19th century, there have always been books that have enjoyed larger popularity than others, becoming rapidly sold out and reprinted. Some of them, like the Bible, have been bestsellers at all times, while others have become extremely popular in a short period of time, occasionally leaving a strong impact on the tastes of the readers and thereafter falling into oblivion. The reasons for a book becoming a bestseller are varied. Bestsellers range from religious writings to popular novels, and they differed in various periods of time. With reading habits constantly changing, the possibility of a certain type of book becoming a bestseller changed as well. The top-selling books were also translated into different languages and became widely distributed.

In early modern Europe, religious books such as The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan were the closest competitors of the Bible in terms of popularity. Bunyan’s book was published in 1678 and has never been out of print since. The book, belonging to the tradition of the Puritan religious literature, rapidly gained wide popularity among readers of all social classes who found the allegorical story about Christian’s journey through the secular world to heaven easy to identify with in the times of political and religious instability. The plain style and abstract characters of the book as well as the strong religious message also appealed to readers.

In the 18th century, the tastes of readers leaned towards secular reading matter. Die Leiden des jungen Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was published in 1774 and aroused great popular interest among young adult readers. It was a novel in letters exploring the tragic love story of the passionate artist Werther, who ended up taking his own life. The novel earned a scandalous reputation, as, according to the popular legend, the rates of suicide appeared to rise after the publication of the book. However, such a reputation only added to the popularity of the novel. The impact of the book on the German reading public has been described as a ‘revolution of reading’.

The top-selling books in the 18th and 19th centuries often exploited a marked sensibility and focused on feelings. Grahfa Leelmahte Genowewa, a translation from the 1810 book by Christoph von Schmid, became the first bestseller in Latvia when it was published in 1845. It narrated a popular medieval plot about Genevieve of Brabant in a sensitive style that has been reported to move readers to tears. The book changed the habits of many previously non-reading individuals. It was read again and again many times and became part of popular culture.

While the perception of bestsellers has become more complex in the 21st century, the early precursors to the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books demonstrate the close link between literary success and new reading habits.