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50 Best Cult Books

from the London Telegraph

Our critics present a selection of history’s most notable cult writing. Some is classic. Some is catastrophic. All of it had the power to inspire

What is a cult book? We tried and failed to arrive at a definition: books often found in the pockets of murderers; books that you take very seriously when you are 17; books whose readers can be identified to all with the formula “<Author Name> whacko”; books our children just won’t get…

50 books that changed our lives 
   

 
Rebuilding Dresden after the WW2 bombing described in Slaughterhouse 5
Rebuilding Dresden after the WW2 bombing described in Slaughterhouse 5

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Sideways fantasy from the Diogenes of American letters, a comic sage who survived the firebombing of Dresden and various familial tragedies to work out his own unique brand of science-fictional satire. Like much of Vonnegut’s stuff, this is savage anger barely masked by urbane anthropological sarcasm. Very much the place to start. TM

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1957-60)
The great modern Baroque novel. Made it possible for the middle classes to embrace the Mediterranean. No such Alexandria ever existed, nor did the potboiler thriller plot of space/time exploration, Kaballa, sex, good food and drink (it came out during rationing) or philosophical enquiry. Some beautiful sentences, sure; but lots of them don’t make sense. AMcK

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1991)
The woman who made feminism sexy by being gorgeous and shaving her legs also taught her readers to eat a hearty meal. This book argues that a cult of thinness has desexualised and disempowered women just when, after the acceptance of free love and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the opposite should have happened. The most important feminist text of the past 20 years. SD

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
In one of the original misery memoirs, Sylvia Plath delivered an intense, semiautobiographical story of growing up at a time when electroshock therapy was used to treat troubled young women. The narrator is a talented writer who arrives in New York with every opportunity before her, but buckles. The Bell Jar became a rallying call for a better understanding of mental illness, creativity and the impact on women of stifling social conventions. Plath killed herself a month after its publication. CR

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Bitterly bouncy military farce, responsible for inventing the dilemma to which it gave its name: you’re only excused war if you’re mad, but wanting an exemption argues that you must be sane. Literary history would be entirely different if Heller had followed his original intention and called it Catch-18: it was changed to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book. TM

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)

 Ur-text of adolescent alienation, beloved of assassins, emos and everyone in between, Gordon Brown included. Complicated teen Holden Caulfield at large in the big city, working out his family and getting drunk. You’ve probably read it, be honest. TM

 
Dice

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (1971)
Blame a burgeoning mistrust of conventional psychiatry for the immediate impact of The Dice Man – a novel whose hero, a disillusioned psychiatrist, vows to make every decision of his life according to the roll of a die. As one might have expected from the times, chance sends him into violence and anarchy, which also explains the book’s enduring appeal. AC

Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken (1968)
Those Easter Island things, they’re blokes wearing space suits, aren’t they? Er, no. Hugely influential work of mad-eyed fabricated Arch & Anth, responsible for decades of pub pseudoscience as well as for splendid stuff such as The X-Files. Increasingly common at jumble sales these days, though Von Däniken happily got another 25 books out of the idea. TM

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley (1954)

 The book that launched a thousand trips. William Blake said that if we could cleanse the “doors of perception” we would perceive “the infinite”. Huxley thought mescalin was the way to do so. In this essay, he pops a pill, goes on about “not-self” and “suchness”, and decides love is the ultimate truth. He also took LSD when dying, but hardly stuffed it down the way his fans did. Jim Morrison was one: he named the Doors after Huxley’s book, gobbled mouthfuls of acid and was dead by 27. SD

 
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Forget Asimov or PKD. Douglas Adams was so brilliant a visionary that even in the late 1970s he was able to foresee a time when digital watches would look pretty silly. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – a radio show before it was a novel, and a film, and a game, and a TV show – was incredibly clever and wildly funny. Thanks to the Guide, an entire generation of Britons was nursed to adulthood with the phrases “Don’t Panic” and “Mostly Harmless”, and the number 42. SL

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)
New journalism, non-fiction novel – however you define it, Tom Wolfe’s 1968 account of the novelist Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus ride across America with his “Merry Pranksters” established a style of free-associating, hyperbolic writing (count the exclamation marks!!!) that spawned countless imitations. To a generation of readers it fostered a burning envy that they had not been in San Francisco when the Kool-Aid dispensers were being spiked with “Purple Haze”. Now a vivid social history of a period that seems as remote as Byzantium. MB

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)
Women should taste their own menstrual blood to reconcile themselves to their bodies, declared Germaine Greer in the seminal feminist text of the 1970s. Greer told a generation of women that society had turned them into meek, self-hating, castrated clones. The book was an international best-seller which earned Greer a mixed but enduring legacy. CR

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)

Bewilderingly popular and extremely silly Nietzschean melodrama, in which Ayn Rand gives her mad arch-capitalist philosophy a run round the block in the person of Howard Roark, a flouncy architect. Loved by the kind of person who tells you selfishness is an evolutionary advantage, before stealing your house/lover/job. TM

On The Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
Supposedly filled in under three caffeine-fuelled weeks, the roll of paper on which Kerouac typed his seminal novel recently sold for more than two million dollars, and has spent the past few years on the road itself, travelling from museum to museum in the US, where it attracts queues of bearded jazz fanatics. It is the result of seven years of road-trips across America during the 1940s. Initially it celebrates the alternative lifestyle, although by the end it is coloured by disappointment. TC

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson (1971)

Needs little introduction. Bad craziness as the Duke of Gonzo and his helpless attorney blaze a streak of pharmaceutical havoc across 1970s California, all in demented bar-fight prose and fever-dream set-pieces. Now also a core text for ex-public school drug bores, which tends to obscure the anarchic excellence of HST’s journalistic talent. TM

The Outsider by Colin Wilson (1956)

Required reading in the coffee bars of the East Midlands in the late 1950s; unbelievably, some people paid good money for this study of the outsider figure in Western literature. The TLS found 285 mistakes in a sample of 249 lines, but in its young author’s eyes, it confirmed him as “the major literary genius of our century”. Modesty was not one of his virtues; nor, sadly, was literary ability. DS

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám tr by Edward FitzGerald (1859)
This is among the best-selling volumes of poetry of all time, and does all that a translation should: it introduces the idea of an exotic, different culture; and it expresses what its readers feel, but lets them blame it on someone else. Here, in an age of doubt, aesthetics and Darwinism, these mysterious verses, drawn from 11th-century Persian, stand as little examples of how to celebrate life even as it slips away. TP

The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

 “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” The beach, the sun, the Arab, the gunshots, the chaplain: the stuff of millions of adolescents’ fevered imaginings. If you don’t love this when you’re 17, there’s something wrong with you. In the film Talladega Nights, Sacha Baron Cohen’s snooty French racing driver reads it on the starting grid. Strange but true: George W Bush read it on holiday two years ago. DS

The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda (1968)

 Take an enterprising anthropology student (Castaneda) and a Mexican shaman (Don Juan), mix in liberal quantities of peyote, and you end up with a text rooted in “nonordinary reality”. Castaneda’s multi-part account of his adventures, which started to appear in 1968, and includes lessons in how to fly and talk to coyotes, has always elicited queries as to its veracity. But when you’ve taken that many drugs, it may not matter. AC

 
Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird
Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1883-85)
Incendiary declamation through a megaphone. If only one knew what he was on about. Put six Nietzscheans in a room and it ought to be a bloodbath; except, since they’re all nancies who fancy themselves as Supermen, there wouldn’t be one. Nietzsche was brave and mad enough to kill God: but look what happened to him. His acolytes are, largely, less brave. AMcK

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Economical Deep South drama around perennially hot-button racial questions, further exalted in literary mythology by being the only thing its author ever wrote. Even those who think they haven’t read it often have. TM

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values by Robert M Pirsig (1974)

 Burnt-out hippy takes son on bike trip. Remembers previous self: lecturer who had nervous breakdown contemplating Eastern and Western philosophy. Very bad course in Ordinary General Philosophy follows. If he’d done Greek at school and knew what “arête” meant, we could have been spared most of the 1970s. AMcK

  • Reviews by Mick Brown, Alex Clark, Toby Clements, Sarah Crompton, Serena Davies, Christopher Howse, Sam Leith, Tim Martin, Andrew McKie, Tom Payne, Ceri Radford, Sameer Rahim and Dominic Sandbrook
  • [ click to view full list at Telegraph UK ]

    Posted on April 25, 2008 by Editor

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