The Most Popular Book You’ve Probably Never Heard of

by | Oct 15, 2019


Published in 1678, the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is one of the best selling books in history. Until the mid-twentieth century it was second only to the Bible in terms of copies sold and is still listed as one of the top selling books of all time. It has remained continuously in print since 1678. It is one of about ten books that vies for the title of the first novel written in English. The Guardian (UK) ranks it Number One in its list of 100 best novels.

Pilgrim’s Progress is written as an allegory which takes place in a dream. here’s a summary from Goodreads:

[Pilgrim’s Progress is a] famous story of man’s progress through life in search of salvation remains one of the most entertaining allegories of faith ever written. Set against realistic backdrops of town and country, the powerful drama of the pilgrim’s trials and temptations follows him in his harrowing journey to the Celestial City.

Along a road filled with monsters and spiritual terrors, Christian confronts such emblematic characters as Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, Talkative, Ignorance, and the demons of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But he is also joined by Hopeful and Faithful.

I had never heard of Pilgrim’s Progress until last week as it was mentioned in a book I am reading.

The Pilgrim’s Progress Effect

The extraordinary 1989 Hugo Award winning book Hyperion by Dan Simmons has a passage wherein it describes a situation where a book, due to cultural reasons, is fashionable to be owned and displayed in households whether it is actually read by the purchaser of the book or not. Hyperion dubs this the Pilgrim’s Progress Effect in reference to the fact that Pilgrim’s Progress was widely owned but rarely read.

From the History Blog: “Up until the twentieth century [Pilgrim’s Progress] was a standard household book in English-speaking homes, a common sight on bookshelves alongside the Bible. Most adults today have heard of the famous allegory, but few have actually read it.

What books may have experienced the Pilgrim’s Progress Effect? The website Goodreads tracks the books owned and read by its readers. Here’s its list of popular owned but not read books:

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A related IFOD is How Many People Finish Books?


  1. From whence the phrase “slough of despond”. You could devote an entire column about how to pronounce “slough” and other “ough” words!

  2. Another interesting fact about this book is that the author only had a minimal formal education and very modest upbringing, and yet was able to write a masterpiece. C.S. Lewis has gone so far as to describe John as an example of a divinely inspired writer, given the quality of the work despite his lack of education. I’ve read the book and really enjoyed it and was a bit surprised to find it listed as “The Most Popular Book You’ve Probably Never Heard of”.


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