This list combines the favorite novels as ranked by readers in the United States and the United Kingdom
Be well read on 2 continents!
Ah, the United States and the United Kingdom. Did two countries ever have a weirder relationship?
We, the U.S., are the younger sibling, the one who has made good in the world, but still mainly cares what our older sister (or brother) thinks of us.
I thought it would be fun to take a look at our reading tastes and see how they compare…and also let everyone know what will get you the most “bang for your buck” (or reading time) if you want to appear well read in both countries.
To develop this esteemed list, I compared the BBC’s Big Read, the 100 best loved books as reported by the British people in 2003, with the PBS’s Great American Read, the 100 best loved books as reported by the American people.
Here we go, from 10 to 1. Ties are arbitrarily ranked (by arbitrary I mean I put the one I like better at higher).
PBS treated series as one book while the BBC treated each book in the series separately, so I went with the first appearance of any book from the series with the BBC. Similarly, PBS only allowed one book per author. This difference doesn’t appear to affect the results much because additional books on the BBC list appeared much lower, but I reported them anyway.
10. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
U.K. Rank: 12, U.S. Rank 21, Nationality of author: U.K., Publication year: 1847, Setting: Yorkshire Moors, late 18th/early 19th centuries
I have always wondered what was happening on those moors, and particularly in the life and or mind of Emily Brontë to create Wuthering Heights. I think people generally either love it or hate it. I fall into the latter category. If you got through school without reading it, you probably should read it at some point in life just so you can have an opinion.
As you can see, Brits like it more than Americans: I’ll bet more of them read it in school. But even so, 21st in the U.S. isn’t shabby at all.
FREE download at Project Gutenberg: Wuthering Heights
For help with Project Gutenberg: How To Download FREE Books with Project Gutenberg and Why You Should
9. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
U.K. Rank: 21, U.S. Rank: 6, Nationality of author: American, Year published: 1936, Setting: Civil War era (1860s) Georgia, US
Gone with the Wind is the book that a lot of Americans read and a lot of Americans feel guilty about. It’s number 6 in the United States although few people admit to liking it because of course we know that the portrayal of slavery is ridiculous.
I was surprised that it’s so popular in the U.K., and the best I can say is this: Shame on you!
The best I can say about the portrayal of the slave system in Gone With the Wind is that the book is basically from Scarlett’s point of view, and she is still a teenager when slavery ends, so she’s basically clueless. If she had run Tara as a slave plantation, she would have found out the truth quickly and have done what she felt she had to do, which is shown by her acceptance of convict labor later in the book.
I’ll admit that I’ve read it several times, and I tend to reread it when I’m really down. What appeals to me is the character of Scarlett: she does some bad things, she does some stupid things, she does a lot of self serving things, but at the end of the day, her family wouldn’t have survived without her. And she defines family as her close relatives, whether she likes them or not, current and former in-laws (of whom she has a lot), and any formerly enslaved people who choose to stick around, whether they work or not.
The South is the world in a nutshell: basically, a mess.
8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
U.K. Rank 18, U.S. Rank 8, Nationality of author: American, Year published: 1869Setting: Concord, Massachusetts, US during and after the U.S. Civil War (1860’s)
Ironic that two novels set during the Civil War come in at 8 and 9 although the war is far less central to the plot in Little Women, which is set in the north and far away from the action. The story is, of course, based on Alcott’s family, who lived in Concord, Massachusetts near several other literary greats, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson.
Like many people, I love this book: what isn’t to love about a well written book about family?
Feminist scholars like to complain that Alcott was forced by her publishers to marry Jo off at the end, but honestly, I like seeing the character she built from her imagination. If she had found that person, would she have married in real life?
FREE download at Project Gutenberg: Little Women
7. 1984 by George Orwell
U.K. Rank 8, U.S. Rank 18, Nationality of author: British, Year published: 1949, Setting: 1984 (as imagined in 1948) London, England, Oceania
Never was there a book so scary, and never was there a book so important to read.
By all rights, 1984 should mostly be an anachronism because it was written in response to rationing and other sanctions that continued in the U.K. long after the end of World War 2, sanctions that made British people wonder if they had actually been on the winning side!
In contrast, Americans had homes and an infrastructure that was almost completely unaffected by the war.
The other major conflict that is depicted in this novel is the specter of the Soviet Union under Stalin, which has been gone for decades, with the Soviet Union itself collapsing 40 years ago.
But for every issue that is solved, another one from 1984 arises. And that’s what keeps us all coming back.
1984 entered the public domain in the U.K. in 2021, but it is not yet in the public domain in the U.S.
6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
U.K. Rank 10, U.S. Rank 10, Nationality of author: British, Published: 1847, Setting: North England (Derbyshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire) in the early 19th century
The US and the UK seem to be in agreement on their esteem for Jane Eyre, and both countries confirm my long held suspicion that most people prefer it. I think English teachers think Wuthering Heights is better because it’s darker, but I find more to latch onto in Jane Eyre.
She’s fallen for a classic bad boy…who is hiding his wife in the attic of the home she lives in…and of course we all know what it means when a man is raising a “ward”…and rather than just go along with it to go up in social status, she takes her life into her own hands.
Bertha dear, if I had to put with the crap that you have, I would have gone crazy too!
If you’ve read Jane Eyre, try Villette, which is under appreciated.
5. Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
U.K. Rank 9 (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), U.S. Rank 9, Nationality of author: British, Publication date: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Setting: Narnia/English countryside 1942
The US and the UK also agree on the Chronicles of Narnia…and I’ll bet that hardly anyone guesses that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn’t first! Whether you are a Christian and buy into the allegory or not: who cares?
A great story is a great story, and its meaning touches something in all of us whether we believe in Christ or not.
I am personally not satisfied if any elementary school child for whose education I have ever been responsible finishes 5th grade without reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
4. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
U.K. Rank 5 (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), U.S. Rank 3, Nationality of Author: British, Year published: 2000 (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, U.K. title), Setting: Highlands of Scotland, 1991-1998
The Harry Potter series is the only series affected by timing of the UK’s Big Read, which was 2003. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the most recently published book then; the rest of the series turned up in a bunch at numbers 22-25.
Obviously both the Brits and Americans love Harry Potter.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
U.K. Rank 6, U.S. Rank 1, Nationality of Author: American, Published: 1960, Setting: Maycomb, Alabama, U.S., mid 1930’s
I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird; I like it: I don’t love it. I don’t know why.
Honestly, if I’m going to teach a book with a storyline featuring the horrors of Jim Crow, I’m going to teach a book written by an African-American. No matter how profound she is, I’m not that interested in the perspective of an upper class white kid. Hate me if you will.
Yes, and I realize there is more to it than that. I just said I like it.
2. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
U.K. Rank 1, U.S. Rank 5, Nationality of Author: British, Published: 1954, Setting: Middle Earth, 6,000 ago depending on how one calculates time
The Hobbit, the only other book from this series on the BBC list, came in at 25, just under the Harry Potters.
Actually either The Lord of the Rings or Pride and Prejudice could have been #1; I went with P&P because I like it.
I’ve never been a fantasy fan, and this is the only book I haven’t read or series I haven’t read at least one book from!
Your takeaway from that is that it’s amazing I’ve read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and leave it at that.
Clearly everyone in the U.K. and the U.S. can’t be wrong.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
U.K. Rank 2, U.S. Rank 4, Nationality of Author: British, Setting: South of England, early 19th century
Yes, Pride and Prejudice, because we all love to see a snob bested by his own emotions. Especially Elizabeth Bennet.
For the record, since the Americans only allowed one book per author on their lists, Persuasion was the next highest on the BBC list, at #38, and Emma, at #40. I approve: they are my second and third favorites too!
If you think that Jane Austen was nothing than the mistress of the best written romance novels ever, check out this earlier post on the subversive commentary on the times she was actually making: there’s more going on here than meets the eye, or anyway is apparent to most 21st century readers.
Also take a look at some of the myriad of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs that have been covered on The Lois Level:
Molly Greeley’s “The Heiress”: Can you Make a Good Book Out of a Boring “Pride and Prejudice” Character? about Anne de Bourgh, the woman Darcy was “supposed” to marry
“Pride and Prejudice”: What was really going on in Elizabeth Bennett’s home, Longbourn? is the downstairs version of Pride and Prejudice (and is really good!)
The Lois Level Pick of the Lists
When I looked at each one of the lists, BBC Big Read and PBS Great American Book, one title jumped out at me that is an absolute favorite of mine. Each one is ignored on the other list, so I thought I would enlighten all of you.
Neither of these is to be missed!
The American book that more Brits should read: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is #13 on the Great American Read. Fun fact: it was also the most popular of all the Armed Forces Special Editions that were published during World War 2 for American soldiers to read while fighting (a fascinating story you should read for yourself).
I point this out just so you understand that you shouldn’t dismiss this book just because it’s written about a teenage girl (ages 11-17) during the early 20th century. There is something to identify with no matter where you are from. Francie’s grandparents are German and Irish immigrants, her father is a charming alcoholic, and her mother would be a workaholic except you don’t call it that when she’s keeping the family from starving.
Oh, and somehow gets her kids educated and the whole family on the road to a better life.
If you like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, try Joy in the Morning. It’s a much happier book. It’s not exactly a sequel; the characters are different, but the events in the novel closely mirror the events in the young adult Betty Smith’s life just like the events in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn somewhat mirror her childhood.
The Best-Loved British book that more Americans should read: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
I’ve always wondered why A Town Like Alice isn’t better known in the United States. It might be because the book starts out really slowly, with a rambling backstory that involves a middle aged solicitor (lawyer) in London. Just hang in there…skim if you have to…because when the story gets good, it gets very good.
The British public ranks it as their 37th most favorite book.
About half of A Town Like Alice is set in Malaya (current Malaysia) during World War 2, when yes, the Japanese were creating havoc, and the second half is set in Australia in the War’s aftermath.
It’s the kind of book I like because the point of the book is not “sealing the deal” by finding “the one”. It’s about a woman truly living her life by taking advantage of the opportunities she has and doing her best to manage her situation when things get rough. But the “things getting rough” isn’t the focus of the plot either.
She also realizes that while love is important, that no relationship can be just about each other without having something of their individual dreams. So she figures out how to put it all together.
Because you know sometimes, we fall in love, and hopefully that’s a great day. Sometimes, we can lose a lot in one day, and that’s a terrible day. But usually, neither one of those events is the last page, if you know what I mean.
Reading by the Numbers: Americans and British
Apparently Americans still read more British literature than the other way around as the final tally shows that 70% were written by British and only 30% by Americans. Out of the three American books, 2 are Southern. Go figure.
Women are the most popular across the board with 70% female authors (and 0 American male authors). If we are going to read men, apparently we prefer British men (In authors, not as men…I for one am NOT taken in my the accent. I’ve been made fun of in British one time too often and/you/know/who/you/are.).
In the protagonist count, the ladies also come out ahead with 65% female and 35% male: I counted Narnia as one of each.
Sadly, we collectively come in pretty awfully with our look at representations of difference, unless you count the mythical characters. To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind have African Americans in supporting roles (yes, yes, I know the issues with Gone With the Wind).
There are quite a few books from a range of ethnicities on the remainder of the PBS list, and I’m sure if the BBC ever does the Big Read again, a greater range will be represented.
Meanwhile, happy reading! 🙂