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Open Book Thread: Cult Fiction (and nonfiction)

I thought this was a how-to book
I thought this was going to be a how-to book

Time for another book thread! I’ve got a little bit of an ulterior motive for this one. I’m looking for examples of your favorite or least favorite cult books — either fiction or non-fiction.

I’m not necessarily looking for books that have a small but devoted following (though those are fine) but also for those books that seemed to be everywhere at some point in time — the kind of books that friends pressed upon you, insisting you read them, telling you they had “changed their life.”

In one discussion of cult books over on Metafilter, a commenter described his list of suggestions as “what any self-respecting 80s stoner would have had on his bookshelf.” Replace 80s with any decade you’d prefer, and “stoner” with “nerd” or “punk” or whatever suits you better, and you get the idea.

Some examples of the sort of books I’m looking for:

  • Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
  • The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig
  • The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

Feel free to post examples that are far more obscure and/or recent. Or examples of books that “everybody read” at one point that have become obscure, or that people mainly remember as an embarrassment.

These can be books that you personally love, or books that you can’t understand why anyone loves.

131 replies on “Open Book Thread: Cult Fiction (and nonfiction)”

@Kat I know what male “locker room banter” is like. Maybe talking about which people are hot and crude comments about body parts (I’m not defending that). But talking about groping women like it’s okay is on the extreme side even for that.

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – anyone read that?

Yes. And although they were not officially companion works, some of the essays in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again always makes me think of the two volumes in conversation with each other.

Infinite Jest is one that I think did have a powerful effect on me when I read it and it was wickedly funny in spots and prescient in lots of ways, but only one person I recommended it to ever showed even the slightest interest in actually reading it. I ended up ripping the endnotes out of my copy, but I read an oddly-sized Canadian edition. I can’t imagine reading it electronically.

The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. Fantastic fantasy epic that manages to avoid the stereotypical elves and dwarves. Detailed world-building and complex female characters and, depending on how you interpret the fantasy races, very few of the characters are white.


because I don’t like Batman stuff for Batman, I like it for everyone else, really

Batman’s a shounen protagonist. The least interesting character in his own world

And the shark has officially been jumped…

Re: Kat and reason 1005 not to vote Trump
This is the funniest shit I’ve seen in… literally can’t remember. And it’s still WiP! Dude is always on point, but in this case especially 😁

if on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino is pretty amazing & has a dedicated core of fans. His Invisible Cities is also good.
60 Stories by Donald Barthelme was hugely influential to a generation of writers, but isn’t very well known.

Well, if we’re doing Trump spoofs now, here’s one live from New York: 😀

ETA: To get back to on-topic stuff, Dave Sims’ ‘Cerebus’ books. That was a must-read for anyone into comics, especially the 1980-1990’s. Also proof of why trying to do a monthly 300-issue epic story can be bad for your mental health sometimes. :/

Hey everyone, I just put up an open thread for discussion of the Trump tape.

Friendly neighbourhood James Joyce fangirl here…

Is Finnegans Wake a cult classic? It’s (in)famous as the most difficult book in the English language. It’s not exactly the thing to sit down and read, but it’s fun to get into a group, read bits aloud, and try to puzzle them out. And it’s really funny!


Black Trillium by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julian May, and Andre Norton (Three princesses – fantasy-land shenanigans, serious and funny – awesome author collaboration)

Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch (Hippy-dippy advicey book! Not bad, but more palatable in small quantities!)

@RosieLa – Too Canadian? Impossible! 🙂 The first time I read Lullabies was saying in my head to the character Stop constantly thinking in similes but I really liked it.

About the cult books that had an impact on me, in some sort of chronological order of happening:

J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings“. I read this (translated into Finnish) at age of 6. Devoured every darn word and long scene and relished everything. Re-read it over and over again for years to come. Yearned for more female protagonists, but at least Eowyn was badass for skewering that Nazgûl shitlord. Wrote self-insert fanfic about it at age of 9 or 10, so I guess that’s one solution for more female protagonists…

George Orwell, “1984” and “Animal Farm“. Living close to then-Soviet Union (and being very, very early on politically conscious kid) sort of gave me an idea about what the latter book was about.

Michael Ende, “Momo“. This book actually has the biggest impact to my world-view, at least when it comes to our time on earth, pun intended.

Ursula LeGuin, “Earthsea” trilogy, later on with “Tehanu“. I was furious when I figured out that the Finnish covers of the books completely mislead on protagonist’s appearance. (Read: of fucking course it was whitewashed, clearly no one had the artist read the book first or explicitly spell out the appearances.) Add more LeGuin’s books to the pile, too. Young. Mind. Blown.

Jean M. Untinen-Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series up ’till The Mammoth Hunters (gave up after that). As a pre-teen and teen, I used to like them, although I was more “get on with the plot and stop literally fucking around, I want to hear more about these amazing herbs and survival and shit”. As an adult, my opinion has swapped to “Oh look, Ayle — a name which coincidentally totally does not resemble the writer’s surname, right? — invents everything. And this is still meandering, oversized and still with too much cavepeople hankypanky. No thanks.”

Stephen King’s pretty much everything published from 1970s to mid-1990s. Dude, thanks for the resulting fear of clowns, and was that underage group sex really necessary in that book, too? I think that creeped me out more than the clown, really.

Octavia E. Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood” series. Now, this is where it gets complicated: I absolutely love Butler’s style, I absolutely love her writing skill, I absolutely love the way he puts things brutally and not at all kindly, but the Oankali creep me out on such level that I don’t think I’ll be able to reread it again.

Keiji Nakazawa’s “Barefoot Gen” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” also linger a lot in my mind these days.

Welp, that’s some books I could think of…

I’ve never actually read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I do have the CD of the BBC radio version starring James Purefoy as the narrator. I thought the storyline was kinda dumb, but the radio version was done well.

Also, I’m trying to read the Trump open thread, but it won’t stop crashing. Has anyone else had this problem with that thread? Is it a traffic issue or a browser issue?

Question may be answered.
Now I’m getting constant crashes on an almost 2-year-old post. Maybe it’s a browser problem.


I have a longer post coming later , but wanted to add to the love for Fforde’s “Shades of Gray”. I’ve grown sick of “Hard Men Make Hard Choices” as an idea, and I love how this book handles the extremely hard (and heartbreaking!) choices the protagonist has to make, how it changes him.

Okay, here goes. Not sure if all of these will count as ‘cult’, but some will:
Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr Ripley. Read it four years ago and can’t remember enjoying a novel as much since. It’s about a charming young American sociopath discovering Europe (oh, and murder as well). Really gripping and entertaining. The sequel wasn’t up to much, but I expected that.
Brett Easton Ellis – American Psycho. Read in my early 20s when I was in bed with a cold. I know it got some flak from feminists at the time of publication; all I’ll say is that the scenes of torture and murder are largely in the protagonist’s head (I found his nonviolent sadistic acts more disturbing). It’s a pitch-black satire on consumerism; Bateman has every THING he could want in his life, so he has to fill it with darker and darker fantasies.
Alisdair Gray – 1982, Janine. Read this in my mid 20s, thought it was excellent. Another novel about a man’s unsavoury fantasies (oh dear) but much more humane than American Psycho. It’s about a middle aged Scottish businessman lying on a hotel bed, alternating BDSM fantasies with thoughts about his failed life and the state of Scotland. Much, much better than I’m making that sound.

Oh, and @ Skiriki – I read Maus as a teenager and I definitely feel that it’s a classic of Holocaust literature. It’s great how drawing the characters as animals somehow makes it possible to show or say things much more easily than if they were humans.

I can’t really think of any fiction that hasn’t been mentioned already, but there are a few foundational texts of the environmental or animal rights movements that possibly count as ‘cult’:

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – The scientific case against careless use of pesticides and herbicides put forward by Carson is not so relevant anymore (basically because she was proven right), but Carson was one of the first writers to popularise the idea that there might be moral constraints on the way we treat the wild landscape and its inhabitants apart from narrowly anthropocentric concerns.

Ecology, Community and Lifestyle by Arne Naess – Again, the environmental movement has generally moved away from Deep Ecology, for better or for worse, but Naess provides a fairly clear account of the philosophical underpinnings of his environmentalism – the ideas of the extended self, biocentric egalitarianism and so on.

Feminism and the Mastery of Nature by Val Plumwood – Explores parallels between environmental degradation and misogyny; a very influential text in ecofeminism. Plumwood also provides some persuasive criticisms of some of Naess’ ideas.

The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams – Uses feminist theory to critique the way human consumption of animals is conceptualised and justified. Adams’ feminism is fairly solidly second-wave (she really doesn’t like pornography) so your tolerance for that sort of thing might affect how well you get on with it.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold – Constantly referred to by Anglo-American environmental philosophers even now (again – for better or for worse). There’s plenty to criticise in here (Leopold’s assertion that ecosystems’ and species’ beauty, integrity and stability should come before the well-being of individuals was referred to by Tom Regan as ‘eco-fascism’); I do find inspiration in his suggestion that humanity should see itself as a co-member of a community with other species, rather than as a master or manager.

Tldr alert. What an amazing thread. @ Buttercup – thanks for the info on Richard Bach. Wow, loved his stuff! JLS has been a longstanding favourite book of all time!
Mind blown, definitely changes my perspective on his stuff.
I like his ending of ‘Illusions’ where he says something like ‘ everything in this book may be completely wrong’. What a get out clause.

Re Judy Blume – Forever, I got into trouble at primary school (11yrs old) for passing this book around, my mum got called in and she wrote a letter saying that she remembered reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a brown paper wrapper. I remember the guys penis was called Ralph, I don’t know why but that disturbed me.

Paula Danzigger anyone? It’s a something eat Aardvark World or somesuch. Nice off-beat characters having the usual teenage angst.

All the Pratchett &..
Douglas Adams! – Yess. Also Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency series that he wrote after, a lorry driver who was a direct descendent of Thor the thunder God was always rained on and didn’t know why. Brilliant.

Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera – beautiful.

The House of Spirits – Isabelle Allende (film’s dreadful!)

The Alchemist – Paul Cohelo

The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin – amazing non-fiction about aboriginal songlines – anthropology. Fascinating to a lay person. Beautifully written.

Shantaram – Aussie criminal escaped prison went to live in India. autobiog, Someone leant it to me and actually said it was a cult book. Tried to read it but hated him, egotistical prat. He recounts a visit to a child slave market and is completely self centred with no concern for the children. I couldn’t read anymore after that.

Mr Nice. – Ditto – The cannabis smuggler. I went to see him speak and he was an idiot, and I walked out after about five minutes.

Irvine Welsh – Marabou Stork Nightmares/ Trainspotting. I found him really disturbing and creepy after reading some short stories that incorporated some horrific rape scenes for no apparant reason. Though no one named their dicks at least. I wish I could unread some stuff.

Tolkein – Hated his writing, especially the Hobbit, the story is just one thing after another (if that makes sense). Read The Rings later and did enjoy that more.

CS Lewis – Grew up on Narnia- knocking on backs of wardrobes. he was funny – best line “His name was Eustace Scrubb, and he almost deserved it”.

Loved Pullmans Dark Materials, I thought the books got better further on. The first one is quite slow to start, I have it in my library at school but can’t seem to get kids to pick it up.

The Moors Last Sigh and Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie.

Someone here said Chariots of the Gods – my Grandad had this I remember looking at it in the 80’s. So weird, and unusual.

Mervyn Peake – The Gormenghast Trilogy – superweird gothic, funny.

Rotten – autobiog Jonny Rotten of the Sex PIstols, brilliant, intelligent, funny.

The Secret History – Donna Tart, probably not cult, but one of the best, a must read, most of you have probably read it. Goldfinch is her latest. I think her first is still her best.

Gutted to hear about film version of Peculiar children, that’s a shame. The book was stand out and def a Maggie Smith part!

Sorry if TLDR

@ Johanna, JS, Schnookums,
leaping onto the Jasper Fforde “Shades of Grey” love pile. Virgin Mary, it has a somewhat “The Prisoner” ominous vibe, to me anyway. You might like it.

While we are at it, raking a few leaves together for Fforde’s whole Thursday Next series. And Nursery Crime series. They are marvellous.

I also enjoyed his the Last Dragonslayer series, though the it didn’t hit me with the same “different, in a suddenly realised to be crucial way” force. Apparently, a TV adaption of Dragonslayer is due out Christmas this year. Suddenly I am on tenterhooks for it.

Seguing to a comment on one category of cult classics:

These are books that continue to sell at a steady (albeit often small) rate for decades after being written, without being acknowledged as great literature and added to the canon.

Their readers and fans include other creative types such as film makers and TV producers.
Some of these creative types try to share that love by producing an adaption of the work in their own medium. Sometimes the money people let them.

This may or may not turn out well from a box office point of view. It may or may not turn out well as far as critical reception by the general public goes. It may or may not turn out well as far as reception by pre-existing fans goes.

A definition of one kind of cult classic is, “a book that a member of the general public would not consider reading unless held at gunpoint, but whose movie or TV adaption they would eagerly gobble down, if there was buzz around it”.

When I’m a longtime fan of the work in question, I’m pulled between several emotions.

There is the hope that other people will finally expose themselves to the gloriousness that is that work, and have their lives enriched by it;

the fear that the adaption will be badly botched and give other people the false impression that the work is as bad as the adaption;

and a curmudgeonly resentment at the idea that, for example, a person who has mocked me for twenty years for liking Lord of the Rings despite its flaws will suddenly, still without reading it, become a fan because, as Stranger73577 on a movie chat forum so poignantly put it, ” Have you seen Elijah Woods’ eyes?” with gif.

Sorry for the wall of text, folks.
Tl;dr: “Cult” is a classification of literature that is cyclical – it is defined by moving in and out of the general popular consciousness, by being referred to in other works.

Examples given here by others include Tolkein, Pratchett, Gaiman, many others already named here and loved by me. I’d like to add a few more: Diana Wynne Jones, Philip K Dick, Ursula LeGuin, PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Oh, the 70s.

Loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Has anyone else mentioned The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers? And Fat Freddy’s Cat?

As for “science” non-fiction. Velikovsky, von Daniken and Elaine Morgan with her Descent of Woman and Aquatic Ape nonsense.
Fascinating and fantasising in several neat packages.

Ursula Le Guin is the only writer of that era that has really stood the test of time for me.

@croquembouche et al

Oh yeah, “Shades of Grey” is unmistakably sinister, but that’s part of the appeal. It could have been a hot mess, but it worked.

It’s a shame that Fforde apparently got burned out on it – the proposed sequel became a prequel and, last I checked, he quietly stopped talking about it all together and shifted focus onto the Quarkbeast books (which I enjoyed but, yeah, not the same as SoG, Thursday Next or the Nursery Crimes – and I’d like to see another Nursery Crimes book, too!)

Another Fforde Ffiesta is coming up next May and with the Pound so weak, maybe I can finally get out there for it… 😉

A few years ago, I bought The Tarnsmen of Gor from a garage sale for the sole purpose of making fun of it. I haven’t read it yet, however.

If foreign books that are kinda obscure in the west count as “cult,” I read Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse a few years ago. The latter half is Super Mecha Death Christ vs. the Cyber Buddha! The ending is pretty depressing, however, and for a “sci-fi” book, it reads more like a Lovecraftian horror novel.

Wow. I’ve read all of those. Well, except the Fountainhead, which I started, got about 15-20 pages into and said, “What the actual fuck?” and took back to the library. I understood what John Rogers meant on a visceral level when I read this:

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Of the bunch, I recommend Zen and the Art. The others were so completely a manifestation of their times. Zen was a little different.

How about Portnoy’s Complaint? That’s another of the “everyone who is anyone has read this” novels.

Oh, I almost forgot another book recommendation: A Confederacy of Dunces! The main character is a proto-neoreactionary pseudointellectual douchebag…and the story hands his ass to him in the most awesome ways possible.

I will say, however, that there is some problematic stereotypes in there, such as a pair of “violent lesbians” who are implied to have sexually assaulted one of the bad guys at the end. It is easy to skip around scenes like that, but it’s understandable if that’s a dealbreaker.

@ Metal Shoggoth – how I forgot about that I don’t know. A classic ‘cult read’, and I loved it when I discovered it approx. age 22 or so. I’ve seen the ‘proto-neoreactionary’ thing pointed out before, although I think on some level you have to (or are meant to, at least) root for Ignatius, repulsive as he is. There is a deep sadness to the book (and to Toole’s life, I guess). I’d forgotten about the violent lesbians til now. There was also some pretty crass stereotyping of gay men, but I guess it was the 60s (and I got the impression that Toole was gay, so maybe there’s some self-mockery in there too). Black people (Burma Jones, and the the factory women who carry Ignatius’ stained bedsheet ‘as if it were a leper’s shroud’) come off pretty well IIRC. I always thought it was a pity it wasn’t filmed – my dream casting would’ve been Philip Seymour Hoffman as Ignatius and Mos Def as Burma Jones (Mos Def was apparently in the running for the unmade Soderbergh film).


Hmm, i do not know if it can be considered as “cult”, but among the books that are quite often give to schoolers (pupils ?) to read (in France), there are the following.
– “Voyage au bout de la nuit” by LF Celine. Even since it has been proven that Celine (it is the last name, he was a man) was strongly antisemite, it is still given to read to highschoolers. Personally, i have not fully read it, finding it too dense (and shamely, i had to mix other people reading report to produce mine, boo me).
– “Lord of the flies” by Golding. Classic, i guess.
– “Le petit prince” by A. St Exupery. Of course.
– “Exercices de style” by R. Queneau. An interesting way to explore the deepness of French language, cult among French teachers (at least).
– “All Quiet on the Western Front” by EM Remarque. Was still given to my generation. Not given anymore, it seems. Cults are like trends, they come and go.

Which books are cult for me ? Well, i do not like the word cult, but i find interesting :
– “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by RB Cialdini.
And that is about all.
I read many other books that i find interesting, but like food, music or masturbation, it is solo activity and it is all personal taste, so i would not dare to give advice about it.

Have a nice day.

Scildfreja – I’ve tried to read Godel, Escher, Bach with exactly the goal you mention. It was most frustrating. The three subjects I have the most difficulty with are mathematics, art, and music; that may have contributed to my minimal understanding. I keep hoping that I’ll find a way to learn enough to understand GEB, but first I’ll need to know what it is I don’t know.

I found The Fountainhead at the library as a poorly socialized, intellectual teenage boy. Mercifully, I realized that I did not want to read a book in which the hero is a palpable jerkface.

I’ve read Foucault’s Pendulum three times, enjoying it more each time. At first it was the high weirdness, then I started liking the characters.

Tried to get through the Series of Unfortunate Events. Overdosed on Weltschmerz. Never finished, not even to find out what the VFD really was.

I’ve read ALL of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, which just kept getting better.

Little, Big by John Crowley. A modern fantasy about an American family who made a pact with the Fae in the 1920s. Allegedly Ursula K. Le Guin’s favourite novel.

Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban. 2000 years after a nuclear war, a boy from Iron Age Inland goes on a quest. Written in an odd phonetic future English, it’s about Mr Punch, St Eusa and Adom, the Little Shining Man.

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