Most-read authors


Inspired by Nicole and Amateur Reader, I thought I might compile my own list of most-read authors—that is, authors by whom I have read the most works. I adopted Nicole's random cutoff of five books, and practically speaking, this list only includes books from late high school and on, since I've gotten rid of most of the books I read before then and wasn't keeping track of this stuff in any organized way. There would be plenty of Agatha Christie, Carolyn Keene, L.M. Montgomery and Anne Rice on here if I counted my childhood reading, but damned if I remember which of those I've read and which I haven't. Anyway, here are the numbers:

Virginia Woolf - 21

Colette - 8
Marcel Proust - 8
William Shakespeare - 8
Tennessee Williams - 8

Ray Bradbury - 7
Henry James - 7
Anaïs Nin - 7
J.K. Rowling - 7
Kurt Vonnegut - 7

Samuel Beckett - 6
Charles Bukowski - 6
Charles Dickens - 6
John Irving - 6
Toni Morrison - 6
Haruki Murakami - 6
Salman Rushdie - 6

Jane Austen - 5
Fyodor Dostoevsky - 5
George Eliot - 5
Jasper Fforde - 5
Kazuo Ishiguro - 5
Herman Melville - 5
Vladimir Nabokov - 5

Regular readers will not be shocked that Woolf comes out the clear winner here, with 21 books including volumes of her letters and diaries. The big surprise? HENRY JAMES. Let me explain my relationship with James: I can't stand the man. When his characters converse, I dream of hitting them over the heads with shovels. Not that it would do any good, since the disembodied narrator would continue droning monotonously on, making weird, annoying references to the "magnificence" of certain mundane comments. Yet somehow, I have read seven of James's books. Granted, most them are novellas; my list includes Portrait of a Lady, Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, The Beast in the Jungle, Daisy Miller, The Wings of the Dove, and What Maisie Knew. But even so! And even stranger? Only one of these was required for a class. The other six I chose to read, independently.

I think the explanation is that James seems, in theory, like a novelist I would love. Complex psychological portraits, often scented with a whiff of the mysterious? Unreliable narrators? An oddly delicate, convoluted sentence structure? All traits I adore. When Woolf does the same thing, I eat it up with a spoon. When Proust does it, I can't get enough. Yet for some reason, when James does it, it makes me want to gargle turpentine. Why should this be? By rights, I should love James. In fact, in writing this, I've almost convinced myself to go back for another try. "Oh come on," I find myself thinking, "he can't be that bad." Perhaps The Golden Bowl will be the James novel I love at last? Or The Bostonians? Washington Square? More's the pity for me that James was so cussedly prolific—I could go on for years with no end to this dysfunctional relationship.


More about the list? It's odd that I've read the same number of Shakespeare plays as I have Tennessee Williams—I think this is because I did my thesis on Lear and Montaigne, and spent so long going in-depth on one Shakespeare play that I haven't gotten around to expanding my breadth. Those not on the list yet, but soon to cross the border: Thomas Hardy, Peter Carey, Zora Neale Hurston.

As Nicole and Amateur Reader both point out, this exercise generates a list that feels a bit bizarre. So many of my favorite authors aren't on it at all, nor are the authors of several books I have re-read MANY times (Jane Eyre, for example). Still, it's an interesting exercise.


  • That is definitely an interesting list! But the thought of compiling my own is daunting. How did you do it? Have you blogged about all of these, did you look through your bookshelves, do you have a list, or is your memory just crazy better than mine?

  • Fascinating. I suspect that my own list would be heavy on popular authors and light on the classic authors. I seem to read one or two representative works by each classic author--and then just read the same ones again. It's only in the last few years that I've tried to dig deeper.

    Just glancing over my bookshelves, I can see that the 5+ authors would certainly include Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Hardy, Stephen King, Laurie King, CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Lemony Snicket, JK Rowling, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Looks like I read lots of kid's books and mysteries, but mostly it just shows my devotion to a couple of series.

    And that's so funny about Henry James. The only book of his that I've enjoyed was Portrait of a Lady, which I adored, but I've tried Turn of the Screw at least twice and it was like chewing glass. It should be a perfect read for me, but ick!

    As for Woolf, I haven't gotten over my dislike for Mrs Dalloway. I want to try her again because so many whose taste I respect love her, but I can't bring myself to it. Any suggestions? (My dislike of Mrs Dalloway had to do with the stream-of-consciousness style and the fact that nothing seemed to happen. Also, I was 20 years old and doggedly devoted to the Victorians. I might like it better now.)

  • OK. I always love your posts. Really, I do. But this rant against James has had me actually laughing out loud - you know, unlike those people who use lol but really don't have any intention of snickering much less actually laughing aloud. Me? I'm practically guffawing at you and James and your deliciously painful relationship. Thanks. Thanks ever so much. I'm going to go giggle through dinner now.

  • Wow! That is an amazing amount of Woolf. I've only read Mrs. Dalloway, as part of Woolf In Winter, so... really should change that.

    It's amazing - I'm looking at your list, and there are so many authors on there that I want to read more of, but I just haven't, as there are so many other books out there. Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, and Austen come to mind. I've only read Pride & Prejudice. :S

    I've never read a Henry James book, and now I'm half-afraid that I wouldn't be able to without the image of someone somewhere gargling turpentine in my head.

  • Interesting excercise! I have a feeling that JK Rowling would top my list with 7 books. I don't normally read all the books my favourite authors have written as I like to spread them over my lifetime, always knowing I have some left to savour. I don't think I'll have read more than 4 books by many (any?!) other authors in my adult life.

  • Oh how you have made me laugh! You are either a masochistic for continuing to read James if you don't like him, or you secretly love him but for some reason don't want to admit it. Yours is an interesting list. I am not surprised about Woolf being so far above and beyond all the others :)

  • You have inspired me to do this as well. In fact, I can't wait until I get home to sort my spreadsheet. I already know who my top author is going to be (Anita Brookner) but am very curious who else will be up there.

  • The logical step, now, is not to read another book by James, but a book about James. It's time to look at Leon Edel or Edmund Wilson, enthusiasts for James. Or Joseph Epstein - this piece, yes, yes.

  • Did that link go screwy - it's "Selling Henry James," about Epstein's experience teaching James (

  • Kathy: No, my memory isn't that good. :-) I relied on my LibraryThing catalog, which means the list is probably missing a few authors I read earlier in life, back when I used the library more. These are actually just the subset of authors who belong on the list and whose books I've kept. :-)

    Teresa: Haha, well I might not be the right person to ask, since Mrs. Dalloway is my absolute favorite book of all time. BUT, stretching my brain a bit to attempt to imagine not liking it...I might recommend you try out her essays & literary criticism. "A Room of One's Own" is a masterpiece, of course, and the collections The Death of the Moth and The Captain's Death Bed are both lovely. The essayist & critic Woolf is perhaps more obviously "directed" than the novelist Woolf, so you might get on better with her. :-)

  • What a completely fascinating idea!
    I need to spend some time thinking about mine. Such an inspiration. Thank you!

  • The only James novel I've read was Daisy Miller for a college course on American literature. Hated it. Boring as hell. Hitting them over the head with shovels indeed!

    Anne Rice and Dean Koontz probably top my list of most-read authors, although I gave up on Koontz awhile ago after his books all started following the exact same formula and each one was preachier than the last.

  • Sara: So glad to amuse you! I knew I was reading all these James books for a reason... ;-)

    anothercookie: Heh, you're probably not thanking me for that mental image. :-) I think if you could only read one Austen you've definitely chosen correctly.

  • Jackie: You're in good company - I've heard that John Irving does the exact same thing. He's "saving up" at least one Dickens novel to read when he knows he's dying, if I recall correctly, which seems to me very gutsy - what if he doesn't get to finish?

    Stefanie: Well that's an interesting suggestion - if I do "secretly" like James, it's a very well-kept secret, even to myself! Or maybe...maybe there is something I like about him - I kind of like having read his books, but I strongly dislike the actual reading. Which is not a good balance! :-D

  • Thomas: Oh good, glad it piqued your interest! I've not read any Brookner, but am intrigued to hear she's a favorite of yours...

    Amateur Reader: Interesting, interesting. I read novels in general for Epstein's exact reasons: pure aesthetic enjoyment & intellectual stimulation (though I don't share his seeming allergy to feminist/postmodern/diaspora analysis). The intellectual stimulation, yes, I get that from James. But the aesthetic enjoyment I most certainly do NOT. It's interesting to read his list of reasons people might object to James, because I don't think I'm suffering from any of those preconceptions...and even if James's subject matter were "rarified," I sure wouldn't care. But oh, the style! Wailing and gnashing of teeth.

  • Lindsey: Certainly! You're very welcome. :-)

    EL Fay: Anne Rice would definitely be on my more complete list, had I been keeping track of my reading back in the day. Now I can't quite remember which & how many of hers I read (especially since she's written so many MORE since then), but I know at least 5 or 6.

  • A great list! I don't think I'd have very many authors on a 5-or-more list, especially for books read after high school. Toni Morrison and JK Rowling may be the only two on it, actually. I'll have to investigate!

  • Ellen Gilchrist tops my list at 21! I love taking a holistic look at what I'm reading because sometimes it just gets away from me. And there's only so much time.

  • Wow, that WOOLF total is impressive.

    I don't think I've read more than five books by anyone, except for children's books and JK Rowling, etc. Give me a few more (dozen) years.

  • What a fun post! I happen to really enjoy James, but I do prefer his longer fiction. I think of him as the same as Wharton...with both of them, I know I'll be yelling at the characters but I still love the books. lol

  • Your list is in fact amazing! I might actually do this and not include the authors before high school, too, hm..

    I have only read one James, The Portrait of a Lady, and had mixed feelings about it. But now I want to reread! But I gave my copy away, which is stupid because now I have to buy another one, lol.

    We share Ishiguro and Morrison and Rushdie. I know I've read a few of those. A lot of the authors on your list I love but haven't read more of.

  • What a fabulous idea. I just put together my list, which is very very different from yours. I really like fantasy & SF, and those tend to run to long series, so they get themselves onto my list. Also when I discover a new author I tend to run out and read everything I can possibly find by them, so anyone I really loved made it onto this list as long as they've actually written 5 books...

    The thing which surprised me is that I've got 2 non-fiction authors on my list.

  • Marieke: High school certainly seems to be the era of reading a favorite author's entire back-list, at least for many people. It's interesting to think about why that might be, or why we tend to stop doing it as we get older...

    Cynthia: I think that's why these listing exercises are so attractive to me - trying to get a larger, if specific, perspective on how I spend my reading time. I've never read anything by Gilchrist; will have to check her out!

  • Rebecca: Haha, well you know me & Woolf. ;-) I did go a bit crazy over her in college. I'm sure there are kids' book authors that should have been on here but aren't - I've forgotten so many of the books I read when I was little! I'm sure it will be a voyage of rediscovery to be reminded of them if/when David & I have a child.

    Eva: The James/Wharton parallel is drawn so often, but I find them totally dissimilar! Love her, can't stand him. It's less the characters and more the STYLE - like chewing glass, as Teresa so aptly put it. That's interesting what you say about the longer fiction, however - I think my favorite of his I've read was Portrait of a Lady, which was probably also the longest...

  • Claire: Haha, I had that same experience with Byron's Don Juan - what was I thinking giving it away?? Knew you would share Morrison; I've loved reading your posts on her.

    Wendy: I think series definitely up the totals. I noticed that lots of people have mystery writers on their lists, and those are often series as well. And honestly Beckett's total was boosted for me because of his Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable trilogy. Proust & J.K. Rowling, same deal. There is that extra bit of motivation to read all the books in a series, that bit of urgency that might not exist for stand-alone books, even from a favorite author.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography