I'm looking for a list of cult books.
December 26, 2007 4:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a list of cult books. In other words, books that have acquired a highly devoted but relatively small group of fans.

For example, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind".

And I'm not necessarily against the idea of books that were, at one time, quite popular amongst a large number of people, but nothing that has been on any best seller lists in the past decade or so.

Both complied lists and personal recommendations welcome.

Fiction and non-fiction, but nothing terribly technical (for example, I don't want to read what most scientists consider the best book on string theory ever written, but something like THE TIPPING POINT would be great).
posted by JPowers to Media & Arts (60 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Looks like this book would be helpful. Granted it's $105. Then again it's table of contents seems to be a listing of "classic cult fiction:"

# Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans
# Animal Farm, George Orwell
# Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins
# Axel, Philippe Auguste Villiers de Lísle-Adam
# Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Richard Farina
# The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
# Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
# A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
# The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
# Catch-22, Joseph Heller
# A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
# The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
# Demian, Hermann Hesse
# Dune, Frank Herbert
# Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
# The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
# Frankenstein, or the Modern Promethus, Mary Shelley
# The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
# The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
# The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
# Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence
# Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
# Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe
# Lord of the Flies, William Golding
# Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
# Lost Horizon, James Hilton
# Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
# One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
# On the Road, Jack Kerouac
# The Outsider, Colin Wilson
# The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
# Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
# Reneé, Francois-Reneé de Chateaubriand
# A Separate Peace, John Knowles
# Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
# Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut
# The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
# The Stand, Stephen King
# Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse
# The Stranger, Albert Camus
# Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
# The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
# The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carlos Castaneda
# This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
# Time and Again, Jack Finney
# Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan
# 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
# Walden II, B. F. Skinner
# Warlock, Oakley Hall
# Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
posted by sneakin at 4:05 PM on December 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oops! Didn't mean to post the whole dang thing. Should've previewed that. Sorry, gang.
posted by sneakin at 4:06 PM on December 26, 2007

Anything by Thomas Pynchon.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:06 PM on December 26, 2007

This is so subjective that I'm sure this falls under chat filter, but if you want to build your own list you could start by narrowing down your interests. The wiki on Cult following has a stub for "cult fiction."
posted by wfrgms at 4:07 PM on December 26, 2007

I'd recommend "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester... It still has a strong, devoted group of fans, but hasn't really been popular in years.
posted by DrSkrud at 4:16 PM on December 26, 2007

Robert Anton Wilson: "The Illuminati Trilogy" and "Schroedinger's Cat"
Back Issues of National Lampoon and Mondo 2000
posted by sourwookie at 4:19 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anything by Cordwainer Smith aka Dr. Paul Linebarger. Some of the best classic science fiction out there.

Some of his works are available online, but a compendium is available The Rediscovery of Man. Highly recommended.
posted by elendil71 at 4:21 PM on December 26, 2007

"The Man Without Qualities" by Robert Musil.
posted by fire&wings at 4:23 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anything by H.P. Lovecraft
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 4:24 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Writers go in and out of fashion. When Carson McCullers first came out, she was huge. Then, for years, she wasn't read or taught much. Now, she seems to be on a bit of a come-up. Robert James Waller's first book was super-duper-popular. His next book was about as popular as asbestos dust. Erskine Caldwell used to be huge, but when's the last time you heard the name Erskine Caldwell? I could go on like this.

All that said, here are a few books which have small-but-devoted followings:
Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler
The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey
Behold a Pale Horse, William Cooper
The Turner Diaries, William Pearce
posted by box at 4:26 PM on December 26, 2007

posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:26 PM on December 26, 2007 [7 favorites]

Almost anything by Steve Erickson ("The Sea Came in at Midnight","Tours of the Black Clock", etc.).
posted by drezdn at 4:26 PM on December 26, 2007

Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren has sold over one million copies, far more than all the rest of his books together; in addition to the hard-core speculative fiction readers who make up his core audience, I have met Dhalgren readers who were punks, hippies, feminists, goths, druggies, surrealists, postmodernists, poets, professors, anti-narrativists, atheists, and the occasional suburban Midwestern housewife who ran across a copy and found it to be the catalyst that changed her life. I occasionally recommend it on these threads but as far as I know no one has ever read it because of that.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:29 PM on December 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

Silverlock by John Myers Myers. For literature geeks.
posted by tkolar at 4:31 PM on December 26, 2007

I second or third someone's recommendation of Dhalgren here every chance I get (and it usually seems to be ikkyu2's at that).

I would also recommend Motorman, by David Ohle.
posted by hototogisu at 5:10 PM on December 26, 2007

Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake both have small (very small, in the case of the Wake) but extremely devoted followings. Personally, I worship and adore Ulysses above all other works of literature (though a good chunk of Shakespeare comes a close second), and have never been able to get more that a few pages through Finnegans Wake.
posted by scody at 5:14 PM on December 26, 2007

I definitely recommend "Against Nature" by Huysmans. It's basically the blueprint for all decadent novels, and has a devoted following because of it. Huysmans' book "La-Bas" is also wicked good and is highly regarded in smaller circles.

"The Voyeur" by Robbe-Grillet is also the type of book you're looking for, I think. The people who read it, love it.
posted by milarepa at 5:21 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, listen to Scody - her taste is obviously...what's the word? It's that one known to all men. You know the one.
posted by milarepa at 5:25 PM on December 26, 2007

Jim Dodge, or at least Stone Junction and Fup
Gene Wolfe, esp Book of the New Sun
Wilhelm Reich
Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski
Godel, Escher, Bach
Ender's Game
The Magus
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 5:27 PM on December 26, 2007

Any comics with any following pretty much necessarily have a cult following. Otherwise they just have no following. Or you could argue just a smaller cult following.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 5:30 PM on December 26, 2007

Seconding Gene Wolfe and Alfred Bester.

Little, Big by John Crowley.

Anything by Jack Vance, Avram Davidson or James Branch Cabell. Well, I suppose there are a lot of cult fantasy authors but those authors have nice small knots of hardcore fans.

As a side note and follow up to box's post: I love how every other question in the original Trivial Pursuit is about some guy named Herman Wouk.
posted by selfnoise at 5:33 PM on December 26, 2007

In the '80s edition, half the questions are about Tip O'Neill.
posted by box at 5:42 PM on December 26, 2007

As far as somewhat little known/read books that ended up having a big impact on popular culture, I'd add the ReSearch titles, esp. "Incredibly Strange Films", "Modern Primitives" and "Pranks". Also "The Book of the SubGenius", every issue of Raw, and, to second Sourwookie, back issues of the National Lampoon. ("Eat My Shorts" was a direct lift from Doug Kenney, for heaven's sake.) Oh, and "Army Man", too, as long as I'm thinking of overt Simpsons' references.

Also the strange and enchanting Dictionary of the Khazars. (MeFi'd here.)
posted by maryh at 5:46 PM on December 26, 2007

Seconding Ender's Game and adding Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.

If you want really esoteric, The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing. They were counter-culture in the 1950s, contemporary pioneers of self-sufficient living, and actually inspired a rather romantic urban decampment on the east coast in the 50s and 60s. The book is about 20,000 times more interesting than you'd think a book about maple sugar could be, and is really about much more than that, simply by example.

It was out of print forever, and I sold my soul for a copy, but happily it went back into print from a small press on its 50th birthday.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:52 PM on December 26, 2007

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet
posted by fuse theorem at 6:06 PM on December 26, 2007

The Complete Books of Charles Fort, by Charles Fort
posted by KokuRyu at 6:12 PM on December 26, 2007

fuse_theorem: not to mention Kehlog Albran's The Profit

and while I see that The Illuminati Trilogy has been mentioned, I am somewhat surprised that the Principia Discordia has not.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:19 PM on December 26, 2007

It's interesting to see where various people's tipping points are. I think The Prophet is probably vastly more popular than a "cult" book. Ender's Game and Snow Crash are modern classics of SF and thus can only really be regarded as "cult" books, in my opinion, if the whole genre is. But maybe I'm attaching too much relevance to pure obscurity.

To offer some other suggestions... I think City of Saints and Madmen is sort of a developing cult book. And then you have an author like H. Rider Haggard, who was once tremendously popular but is now read mainly by a few hardcore fans of that sort of writing.
posted by selfnoise at 6:21 PM on December 26, 2007

I was thinking of Helen and Scott Nearing as well and agree with Little Big. Also The Monkeywrench Gang, The Anarchist's Cookbook, Steal This Book, Naked Lunch, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Manwatching, Housekeeping, American Splendor, In the Skin of the Lion, Ficciones, If On A Winter's Night a Traveler, Cat's Cradle, Still Life with Woodpecker, The Things They Carried, Passages, White Noise.

My list tends towards the postmodern and/or things my folks read and/or anarchist/rural/hippie books but I'd suggest any of those as worth a read.
posted by jessamyn at 6:21 PM on December 26, 2007

The Illuminatus Trilogy
Gravity's Rainbow
Any collection of short stories by Don Barthelme
The Dice Man (NOTE: this has nothing to do with Andrew Dice Clay or his stage persona)
Naked Lunch
The Master and Margarita
A Confederacy of Dunces
Anything by Philip K. Dick. My personal favorites : Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Ubik, Time Out Of Joint, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
The Hitchhikers Guide trilogy (the first three books are pure gold, the last two are somewhat skippable)
posted by Afroblanco at 7:12 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Frank's World
By George Mangels

The Book of Frank (unrelated)
By Simon Black

As above, Confederacy of Dunces (not strictly 'cult' as it won the Pulitzer for fiction in '81)
By John Kennedy Toole and Ender's Game

Sugar Among the Freaks
By Lewis Nordan

Pest Control

By Bill Fitzhugh

Any fiction by Stephen Hunter, particularly Pale Horse Coming

The Rabbit Factory
By Larry Brown

sorry, I'll stop!
posted by dawson at 7:26 PM on December 26, 2007

The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann (his only novel)
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 7:37 PM on December 26, 2007

*Definitely* C.D. Payne's self-published 1993 novel Youth in Revolt, which has a bizarre and fanatical following (it's pretty much cult-only here, but was a bestseller in the Czech Republic a few years ago). I first heard of it when a co-worker used a week's vacation to fly out for a visit with Payne. Just on the strength of his reaction to reading the book.

Now *that's* cult. Here's more from an article last August about the upcoming movie adaptation:

Payne's self-published "Youth in Revolt" became an underground sensation and garnered a youthful cult following throughout the world, leading to a series of books featuring a teenager named Nick Twisp...The novel has been published in multiple countries, staged as a play, broadcast over the radio and has been the subject of countless fan Web sites.

And more still from this 2000 article.
posted by mediareport at 7:41 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

YES! Youth in Revolt, that is essential.
posted by dawson at 7:47 PM on December 26, 2007

The Fountainhead defines cult book on many people's eyes.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Generations by Neil Howe and William Strauss, all about the cycle of generations in American history and the future.
Future Shock and The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler.
Even Cowgirls get the Blues by Tom Robbins.
Anything by Carlos Castenada (Journey to Ixtlan)
posted by jeremias at 8:23 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow... I'm shocked by how many "cult" books everyone's listed that I was assigned to read in either high school or college! (granted, I was an English major)

Anyhoo... I'll toss House of Leaves into the ring. It was introduced to me by a friend, and I've gone on to introduce it to other friends. Everyone I know who has read it went through a brief fanatical period about it, and will still discuss it at length whenever it comes up in conversation.
posted by Kellydamnit at 9:34 PM on December 26, 2007

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart.

Stuff by China Mieville.
posted by charlesv at 9:50 PM on December 26, 2007

The Story of San Michele, the autobiography of Dr. Axel Munthe. It was first published in 1929, and in 1930, just a year after its publication, it was going into its 17th American edition and had already been translated into over 40 languages. A crazy-mad international best seller that I think has largely slipped from public consciousness. Read the Amazon reviews and I think you'll want to read it yourself.
posted by mumkin at 10:25 PM on December 26, 2007

Seth Speaks
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Doors of Perception
Cosmic Consciosness
The Man in the High Castle
Satanic Bible
Stranger in a Strange Land
Population Bomb
Future Shock
The Naked Ape
Book of Lies

Or what any self-respecting 80s stoner would have had on his bookshelf.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:29 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also see the books section at Barbelith, which is like the culstish/stoner version of mefi.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:32 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Catalog of Cool and its sequel Too Cool both have extensive lists of cult literature. Some of my favorites of their recommendations:

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore
Red Dirt Marijuana by Terry Southern
King Blood by Jim Thompson
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:42 PM on December 26, 2007

If you do read Carlos Castaneda, please keep in mind that his books are fiction.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:46 PM on December 26, 2007

I'm not quite sure if this is really cult or not, but Geek Love was one of those books that bookstore geeks like me liked a lot in the late 80's that seems to have developed a wider readership.
posted by maryh at 12:22 AM on December 27, 2007

Infinite Jest. Because of its length, not many people end up reading it. It seems that those who do really like it.
posted by suedehead at 1:30 AM on December 27, 2007

A couple that haven't yet been mentioned: Walden Two by BF Skinner, which spawned several "modern utopia" communities, and Lanark by Alasdair Gray.
posted by goo at 1:52 AM on December 27, 2007

Lots of good ones so far. These may be too popular for you, but they have a devoted following:

- Persig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"
- Pratchett's Discworld books
posted by cmiller at 5:15 AM on December 27, 2007

A couple of good sports ones immediately spring to mind:

"Ball Four" by Jim Bouton, one year in the life of a nearly, but not quite, washed-up professional baseball player.

"Moneyball" by Michael Lewis is said to be required reading among General Managers in Major League Baseball. Lewis incidentally has many books to his credit which might be said to have achieved cult status in their respective fields. ("Liar's Poker" and "Money Culture" among the Wall Street types, "The New New Thing" among Dot Com entrepreneurs.)
posted by vito90 at 5:28 AM on December 27, 2007

Another vote for Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon was one of my favorites.
posted by pallak7 at 6:26 AM on December 27, 2007

someone has already done this for you: the rough guide to cult fiction.
posted by sdn at 6:55 AM on December 27, 2007

Edward Whittemore fits the bill perfectly.

I have no idea how you could include Stephenson or OSC on this list. They're incredibly popular authors whose backlist still sells strongly.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:10 AM on December 27, 2007

Cosmic Banditos, by A. C. Weisbecker. It's a hilarious and bizarre little book about drug running and quantum physics that was saved from literary oblivion when he sent a bunch of copies to "any soldier" in Iraq during Desert Storm. Those copies were read and reread and passed around to others. The story as recounted in the preface of the reprint is simply heartwarming.

Some devoted fans promote the book by buying multiple copies and giving them away.
posted by zebra3 at 8:18 AM on December 27, 2007

Seconding Silverlock. (And thanks, tkolar...I hadn't thought about that book in ages, and I know I have a dog-eared copy of it around here somewhere. Time for a re-reading.)
posted by JaredSeth at 8:31 AM on December 27, 2007


There are more than five authors that have been mentioned who are more popular and sell better than Stephenson, some of which aren't cultish in the least. Stephenson's work appears cultish and macabre comparatively.
posted by pallak7 at 10:06 AM on December 27, 2007

Metafilter has a history of overrating the amount by which an artist is underrated. There was an AskMe a couple years ago about the most underrated musicians, and the resulting thread was basically a list of the most popular and successful artists in music.

I'm not adding anything new here, but of the suggestions already offered I'd nominate the following as true "cult" books, meaning they have an elusive quality that makes them more than just "obscure books with a small but passionate fanbase" or "books that were never blockbusters but have since become consistent sellers."

-The Illuminati Trilogy/Principia Discordia


-Dictionary Of The Khazars

-Youth in Revolt

-House of Leaves

-Geek Love

Ten years ago I would have also included "Stranger In A Strange Land," but I feel like the book has become much more visible over the last decade, especially as "grok" has gained widespread currency.
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:56 AM on December 28, 2007

Yes, please do read Dhalgren if you haven't yet. Browse the Amazon customer reviews for an idea of what a unique experience reading it can be for many people.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:18 AM on December 28, 2007

One more book comes to mind, but again, I'm not sure if it can really be called a cult book: Cold Dog Soup by Stephen Dobyns. I read it years ago, and was utterly stunned to see an indie film adaptation on IFC a while back. Is anyone else familiar with this one?
posted by maryh at 9:49 PM on December 28, 2007

The Rider - by Tim Krabbe is plugged as an "instant cult classic" on the cover of its english edition. And for good reason; it was instantly one of my favorite books. I read it cover to cover in one sitting and immediately started in again. If you have the slightest interest in bicycle road racing or competitive individual sports, give it a go.
posted by Manjusri at 4:50 PM on December 30, 2007

posted by MarkAnd at 7:16 AM on December 31, 2007

Oh, man. Ishmael is, indeed, a cult book. You're either crazy into it or it annoys the fuck out of you, and I'm in the latter camp.
posted by mumkin at 1:06 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I stumbled across these two lists and thought they might be a fit for this post:

- List of most commonly challenged books in the U.S.
- The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000
posted by JPowers at 11:28 AM on January 6, 2008

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