If you wanted to fill a shelf with books on the most famous world figures, you'd do well to ask an expert for advice. Book World's guide this time is Peter Dickson, a former CIA analyst who has recently completed a comprehensive analysis of the Library of Congress books. He is at work on a book that means to resolve the Shakespeare authorship dispute.

What follows is an end-of-millennium reckoning of the extraordinary figures whose fames have far outlasted the 15 minutes Andy Warhol once said we all would have. There may be no real way to accurately measure greatness, but since the computerization of the Library of Congress we can at least compile a list that ranks the most enduringly fascinating historical figures by totting up the numbers of books devoted to them.

The Library -- the world's largest, with some 18 million books and a massive global collection effort -- acquires some 7,000 items each day, so there is a certain thoroughness at work in its halls, and an international representation on its shelves.

Fame should be distinguished from influence. Scientists and inventors, for instance, may have had great long-term impact on the world, but they do not seem to generate the same public fascination that political, religious or cultural figures do. In any case, the scientists with the most books devoted to them are: Leonardo Da Vinci (787), Charles Darwin (544), Gottfried Leibnitz (516), Alfred Einstein (497), Galileo Galilei (497), Isaac Newton (383) and Nicolas Copernicus (375). As you can see, they do not garner anywhere near the amount of books necessary to rank in the top 30, listed to the right.

Unlike the Dow Jones, this fame index cannot decline because books continue to be written about these figures. Martin Luther King (409 books, as of today) is certain to rise rapidly through the ranks in the next century. But will there be enough scholars with enough fresh material to write another two or three thousand books about him, especially when one can view his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on film?

Some interesting asides for culture hounds: The Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes comes in at 30th, a stunning confirmation of Don Quixote's worldwide appeal. Pablo Picasso is at 50th place with 932 books, an amazing fact, really, when you consider that he far outranks all other artists in history, even Michelangelo. Another surprise: Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, is 19th on the list, but Russia's great novelist Leo Tolstoy makes it only into the top 80.

Except for the Virgin Mary, women are absent from the top 30, but the separate category I've included here lists 9 more. Among the top 20 are: Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Marie Curie, Mother Theresa, Queen Isabella and Eva Peron.

One flaw in the list is that it may shortchange the great historical figures who lived long before Gutenberg's invention of the modern printing press (circa 1430). Some might even say that the list has a strong Eurocentric bias as a result. Among the figures who might be much higher in the ranks had they not lived so long ago are: Virgil (883 books), Alexander the Great (764), Cicero (742) and Confucius (701). The Gutenberg press represented a genuine information revolution and had an enormous effect on our present concept of fame.

The other information revolution, the Internet, some day may free the global culture from geographic limitations, but it will not doom our book culture necessarily. The Internet is a boon to serious scholars, greatly facilitating research, and that can only produce more books about these and future immortals.

The 33 Most Famous

1. Jesus [17,239]

2. William Shakespeare [9,801]

3.* Vladimir Lenin [4,492]

4. Abraham Lincoln [4,378]

5. Napoleon Bonaparte [4,007]

6. Karl Marx [3,817]

7. Virgin Mary [3,595]

8. Johann von Goethe [3,431]

9. Dante Alighieri [2,878]

10. Plato [2,894]

11. George Washington [2,742]

12. Buddha ( Siddhartha) [2,446]

13. Immanuel Kant [2,410]

14. Martin Luther [2,291]

15. Adolf Hitler [1,989]

16. Georg Hegel [1,976]

17. Aristotle [1,696]

18. Richard Wagner [1,680]

19. Alexander Pushkin [1,614]

20. Friedrich Nietzsche [1,613]

21. Sigmund Freud [1,601]

22. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [1,592]

23. Mohandas Gandhi [1,583]

24. John Milton [1,533]

25. Ludwig van Beethoven [1,476]

26. Simon Bolivar [1,467]

27. Thomas Aquinas [1,424]

28. Charles Dickens [1,397]

29. Johann Sebastian Bach [1,361]

30. Miguel de Cervantes [1,348]

31. St. Paul [1,341]

32. Christopher Columbus [1,302]

33. King Louis XIV [1,226]

*(God, as a topic, actually figures third, with 7,719)

The Most Famous Women

1. Virgin Mary [3,595]

2. Joan of Arc [545]

3. Jane Austen [544]

4. Queen Victoria [492]

5. Mary Queen of Scots [477]

6.Elizabeth II [442]

7. George Eliot [434]

8. Elizabeth I [407]

9. Cleopatra [329]

10. Emily Dickinson [310]

Copyright Peter W. Dickson, 1999. All rights reserved.