Who did we talk to about books before the invention of Goodreads and BookCrossing?
Goodreads is social media for bookworms: a place where 125 million readers meet to boost, slate or ‘meh’ their latest reading project. Users have “shelved” 3.5 billion books globally, which is a lot to sort through to find a read that is not just first-rate but just your flavor.
BookCrossing narrows the options. Some two million readers have found or deposited over 14,105,640 pass-me-down paper books in public, tracking each particular book-object’s story through a unique code stuck into each one. Serendipity plays a bigger role here; you can hunt for a book you know has been left, but more likely, your relationship with it will begin when you stumble upon it on a bus seat or in a British telephone booth.
While Goodreads is a global conversation, BookCrossing’s interactions are more local — although, with books shared across 132 countries, there’s always a chance you’ll pick one up when you or the book are far from home. Either way, both networks are fantastic opportunities to shake up your regular reading habits and discover a book in another voice: a social, cultural or geographic context perspective you might not otherwise find.
WordFinderX decided to grab a snapshot of the geographically diverse books you might encounter on your switched-on bookworm adventure: we used Goodreads data to identify the most highly rated books by local authors from every country on Earth.
WordFinderX identified the top-rated book in each country by a local author based on the average rating on Goodreads. We only included books with at least 500 ratings.
These are the most popular books by an author from every country. The top-rated book in the world based on those with at least 500 Goodreads ratings is Svědectví o životě v KLDR (Witnessing Life in the DPRK). Czech author Nina Špitálníková’s third book about North Korea is based on seven interviews with refugees from that country. Despite the book’s critical stance towards the North Korean regime, a broad range of interviewees emerge to paint a compelling and little-seen picture of life in the DPRK.
The second highest-rated book in our data is Toda Mafalda by Argentine cartoonist Quino, which collects the entire run of his strip about Mafalda, the six-year-old daughter of a typical middle-class Argentine couple, and her oblique outlook on life. “The kind of ideas that he works with are some of the most difficult, and I am amazed at their variety and depth,” says no less a reviewer than Charles M. Schulz. “Also, he knows how to draw, and draw in a funny way. I think he is a giant.”
The highest-rated book from a North American author comes from U.S. sci-fi and fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson. Words of Radiance is the second of ten books proposed for Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (six have been published so far).
Words is “somehow a combination of politics, war, race, religion, secret conspiracies, magic, assassins, gods, and more,” according to Gizmodo — in a review that echoes the Goodreads consensus towards this epic undertaking set in an epic fantasy universe.
Biographies, memoirs and ethnographies are among the other top books around the continent. But children’s books make the grade, too. Frizzy is the top-rated book from a Dominican author, Claribel A. Ortega — “a former reporter who writes middle-grade and young adult fantasy inspired by her Dominican heritage.”
Meg Medina’s Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away is for slightly younger kids (5-7), and it’s the top-rated book by a Cuban author. “Moving away from your best friend is a really unique experience that brings up a lot of emotions, especially as a child,” writes one Goodreads reviewer. “Medina did an amazing job of depicting the joy just before it happens and the heartbreak when it finally does.”
The top title in South America is Wij slaven van Suriname (We Slaves of Suriname) by Surinamese writer, activist and resistance leader Anton de Kom. His 1934 masterpiece is a history of colonial Suriname and a “fierce indictment of racism and colonialism.”
“De Kom's writing style ensures that the history is told in an engaging and personal manner that does not trivialize the horrors the peoples of Suriname and their ancestors faced under the brutal hand of European colonialism,” sums up one reviewer.
Elsewhere, a modernist classic appears as the top-rated book by a Peruvian. Mario Vargas Llosa was at the forefront of the Latin American Boom in literature in the 1960s alongside figures such as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Manuel Puig. His Conversation in the Cathedral portrays Peru in the 1950s under the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría:
“Over beers and a sea of freely spoken words, the conversation flows between two individuals… who talk of their tormented lives and of the overall degradation and frustration that has slowly taken over their town,” goes the synopsis. “Through a complicated web of secrets and historical references, Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the mental and moral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it.”
The UK’s top book is another in that long series by the British writer who goes by their initials: yes, it’s The Botanist by M.W. Craven. The English crime writer is known for his series about the “cynical, ruthless, monastic” Detective Sergeant Washington Poe, of which The Botanist is the fifth entry.
“Washington Poe, accompanied by Matilda Bradshaw, is faced with not one but two locked room mysteries in one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in recent times,” writes one Goodreads reviewer. “These types of mysteries are typically mind-bending conundrums that demand some careful detective work to solve.”
Meša Selimović was a Yugoslav writer born into a Bosnian Muslim family in Tuzla, modern-day Bosnia — and his 1966 breakthrough novel Death and the Dervish is the top-rated Bosnian book on Goodreads. The book takes the form of an epic suicide note written by an eighteenth-century dervish (a Muslim monk) in Sarajevo, as his world falls apart around him.
“Everything that I wrote before The Dervish was correct, but repressed by my own fear of complete disclosure, of strong emotion, of ultimate sincerity,” wrote Selimović of his leap from literary obscurity. “Everything I wrote previously was a long and trying preparation for The Dervish. Twenty years it ripened within me, in different forms, but always with the same essence.”
Israeli and Turkish authors top the table in this region. Turkey’s Yaşar Kemal was born 100 years ago and died in 2015, and became a grand officier of the French Légion d’Honneur and Nobel nominee along the way. His İnce Memed IV was the final entry in Kemal’s Robin Hood-like Memed, My Hawk tetralogy, written more than three decades after the first, his debut.
“I'm going to cry when I finish this beautiful series,” says one fan. “This feeling of crying is not about the happy or unhappy ending of the series, it's about not knowing where to put your hand and arm after reading it as if you've lived through all these wonderful things.”
Palestine’s top-rated book is written by Susan Abulhawa. Originally published as The Scar of David, Mornings in Jenin begins in Palestine in 1948 and follows a family into and beyond a refugee camp across years marred by tragedy and tinged with love and hope.
“The writing is mesmerising at many places,” writes a reviewer from India. “Lyrical, full of imagery and churning emotions weaved by the words. I have to pause at the end of this book before picking the next. I need time to digest this one!”
Working in anonymity, the Malaysian street painter and writer ‘Teme Abdullah’ has written a series of books about his life as an architecture student in London, where he sold his works on the street to get by. Arkitek Jalanan (Street Architect) is the second in the series and is noted for its poignant and highly readable prose.
The series has become something of a phenomenon driven by a huge buzz on social media. And yet, despite the accolades on Goodreads and elsewhere, ‘Teme Abdullah’ remains anonymous — smudging photos of his face, including when he met the Malaysian king as a result of his acclaim.
See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Violence is Australia’s top book, written by investigative journalist Jess Hill. Nearly 1,200 Goodreads users are “currently reading” the book.
“Jess Hill’s four-year investigation of the parlous numbers of domestic abuse in Australia is ground-breaking,” said the Stella Prize judges, giving Hill the award in 2020. “She has ignited a nationwide debate on the causes and solutions to a devastating problem, garnering significant media attention.”
Two African books are tied for top place with an average rating of 4.52 each. Nigeria’s offering is Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book began as an email to a friend who had asked how Adichie suggest she could raise her daughter as a feminist; Adichie then published the letter on Facebook before it became a book.
While Adichie focuses on Nigeria’s Igbo culture, much of her advice is universal in its promotion of gender equality and her ideals of how to raise a daughter: “Teach her to love books,” “never speak of marriage as an achievement,” “‘because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything.”
Senegalese writer Cheikh Anta Diop delivers the other top book on the continent. The revered historian and anthropologist delivered The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality in 1974, and it remains popular if controversial today.
Our data reveals how not just a range of perspectives but of genres, approaches and styles can clamber to the top of a nation’s literature. Often, it is a book about a country itself — or of another country from the perspective of the author — that grabs readers’ attention, creating either the intense introspection or exotic escapism that get us clicking on that fifth Goodreads star. You can find the highest-rated one from your country in our full data below.
First, we collected author and book lists for each country on Goodreads (e.g., books by Indian authors), then isolated the top-rated books for each location based on the “average rating” metric.
Any book with less than 500 reviews was removed from our data.
Finally, we pulled the genre and cover image for each winning book from their pages.
The data is correct as of May 2023.