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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.

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5 years ago

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.

Metal Shoggoth
Metal Shoggoth
5 years ago

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.

5 years ago

@ 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).

occasional reader
occasional reader
5 years ago


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.

Robert Walker-Smith
Robert Walker-Smith
5 years ago

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.

Peter Johnston
Peter Johnston
5 years ago

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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