50 Best Cult Books

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  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    The novel follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who has become "unstuck in time," experiencing his life events out of order. This includes his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allies' firebombing, his post-war life as a successful optometrist, his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and his eventual death. The book is a critique of war and a demonstration of the destructive nature of time, with a nonlinear narrative that reflects the chaos and unpredictability of life.

  • The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

    "The Alexandria Quartet" is a tetralogy of novels that explore the intricate relationships between a group of friends and lovers in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II. The novels are known for their rich and evocative descriptions of the city and its diverse inhabitants, as well as their innovative narrative structure, which presents the same events from different characters' perspectives in each book. The work explores themes of love, betrayal, and the nature of reality and perception.

  • Against Nature by J. K. Huysmans

    The novel follows the life of an eccentric aristocrat who retreats from society to live in isolation, dedicating himself to the pursuit of excessive aestheticism. He surrounds himself with art, literature, and music, and indulges in sensual pleasures and extravagant interior decoration. The protagonist's obsession with artifice over nature and his quest for absolute individualism and self-gratification are explored, reflecting the decadent movement of the late 19th-century France.

  • Baby And Child Care by Benjamin Spock

    The book in question revolutionized child-rearing approaches by advocating for a more compassionate and flexible parenting style. It provides comprehensive guidance on various aspects of childcare, from feeding and sleeping to behavioral and developmental issues, emphasizing the importance of understanding and responding to each child's individual needs. The author encourages parents to trust their instincts and to treat their children with respect and affection, challenging the more rigid and authoritarian parenting norms of the time. The book's accessible advice and empathetic tone have made it a longstanding go-to resource for generations of parents seeking to raise their children with confidence and love.

  • The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

    The book is a groundbreaking work that explores how images of beauty are used against women, impacting them psychologically and socially. It critically examines the beauty industry and the societal pressures on women to conform to certain standards of appearance. The author argues that the obsession with physical perfection traps the modern woman in an endless cycle of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society's impossible definition of the flawless beauty.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

    The novel follows the story of a young woman who wins a guest editorship at a magazine in New York City and, after a series of personal and professional disappointments, suffers a mental breakdown and returns to her family, where she continues to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. The protagonist's experiences in psychiatric institutions and her attempts to reclaim her life are depicted with brutal honesty, making it a poignant exploration of mental illness and the societal pressures faced by women in the mid-20th century.

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    The book is a satirical critique of military bureaucracy and the illogical nature of war, set during World War II. The story follows a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier stationed in Italy, who is trying to maintain his sanity while fulfilling his service requirements so that he can go home. The novel explores the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of the protagonist, who discovers that a bureaucratic rule, the "Catch-22", makes it impossible for him to escape his dangerous situation. The more he tries to avoid his military assignments, the deeper he gets sucked into the irrational world of military rule.

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

    The novel follows the story of a teenager named Holden Caulfield, who has just been expelled from his prep school. The narrative unfolds over the course of three days, during which Holden experiences various forms of alienation and his mental state continues to unravel. He criticizes the adult world as "phony" and struggles with his own transition into adulthood. The book is a profound exploration of teenage rebellion, alienation, and the loss of innocence.

  • The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield

    The book in question is a spiritual adventure novel that follows the journey of its protagonist as he travels to Peru to explore an ancient manuscript containing nine key insights, which are believed to hold the secret to understanding life's larger purpose and the spiritual evolution of humanity. As the protagonist encounters various characters and experiences synchronicities that guide his path, he delves deeper into the philosophical and mystical concepts outlined in the manuscript. The narrative weaves together themes of intuition, energy, and the interconnectedness of all things, suggesting that personal and collective enlightenment can be achieved by understanding and harnessing these universal insights.

  • The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

    The book revolves around a psychiatrist who becomes disillusioned with his life and the conventions of society. In a quest for true freedom and randomness, he begins making decisions based on the roll of a die, leading to a series of increasingly unconventional and risky adventures. His new philosophy challenges traditional morality and the very notion of identity, as he allows chance to dictate his actions, resulting in a provocative exploration of free will, chance, and the nature of human existence.

  • Chariots Of The Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken

    The book in question presents a controversial hypothesis that suggests ancient civilizations were visited by advanced extraterrestrial beings who were mistaken for gods by our ancestors. The author examines archaeological and historical evidence, such as the pyramids of Egypt, ancient mythologies, and religious texts, to argue that these alien visitors had a significant influence on human development and culture. The book challenges traditional views of human history by proposing that technologies and knowledge from these otherworldly visitors could explain some of the inexplicable architectural and technological feats accomplished in ancient times.

  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

    The novel is a comedic satire set in New Orleans in the early 1960s, centered around Ignatius J. Reilly, a lazy, eccentric, highly educated, and socially inept man who still lives with his mother. Ignatius spends his time writing a lengthy philosophical work while working various jobs and avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood. The story follows his misadventures and interactions with a colorful cast of characters in the city, including his long-suffering mother, a flamboyant nightclub owner, a beleaguered factory worker, and a frustrated hot dog vendor.

  • The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    "The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau" is an autobiographical work by a prominent philosopher of the Enlightenment era, who candidly shares his life story, from his humble beginnings in Geneva to his later years in exile. The book delves into his personal struggles, his intellectual journey, and his relationships, all while exploring his philosophical ideas on education, politics, and morality. The author's introspective narrative provides a unique perspective on his life and times, making it a seminal work in the history of autobiography.

  • The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

    Set in 18th century Scotland, the novel explores the psychological downfall of a deeply religious man who believes he is predestined for salvation and thus justified in committing a series of murders. He is driven to this path of self-destruction by a mysterious stranger who may be either a devilish tempter or a manifestation of his own deranged mind. The book serves as a critique of religious fanaticism and a chilling exploration of the dark side of human nature.

  • Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard

    The book in question is a foundational text for a self-help system that aims to assist individuals in achieving spiritual enlightenment and mental clarity. It posits that the human mind is divided into two parts: the analytical mind, which behaves rationally, and the reactive mind, which stores traumatic memories, or "engrams," that can negatively affect an individual's well-being. Through a process known as "auditing," the book claims to offer a methodology for individuals to systematically clear these engrams from their reactive minds, thereby improving their mental health and unlocking their full potential. The techniques and principles outlined in the book have been widely influential and also controversial, leading to the establishment of a new movement centered around the book's teachings.

  • The Doors Of Perception by Aldous Huxley

    In this philosophical and introspective work, the author details his experiences after ingesting a dose of mescaline, a psychedelic substance derived from the peyote cactus. He vividly describes the profound alterations in perception and consciousness he undergoes, exploring the nature of the mind and the way it filters reality. The narrative delves into the concept that the human brain constrains awareness to ensure survival, but that such substances can temporarily remove these filters, allowing access to a more direct and unmediated experience of the world. The author draws on art, religion, and philosophy to contextualize his insights, proposing that these altered states of consciousness have the potential to provide deep spiritual and intellectual enlightenment.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert

    Set in a distant future, the novel follows Paul Atreides, whose family assumes control of the desert planet Arrakis. As the only producer of a highly valuable resource, jurisdiction over Arrakis is contested among competing noble families. After Paul and his family are betrayed, the story explores themes of politics, religion, and man’s relationship to nature, as Paul leads a rebellion to restore his family's reign.

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

    This comedic science fiction novel follows the intergalactic adventures of an unwitting human, Arthur Dent, who is rescued just before Earth's destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a galactic travel guide. Together, they hitch a ride on a stolen spaceship, encountering a range of bizarre characters, including a depressed robot and a two-headed ex-president of the galaxy. Through a series of satirical and absurd escapades, the book explores themes of existentialism, bureaucracy, and the absurdity of life, all while poking fun at the science fiction genre and offering witty commentary on the human condition.

  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

    The book follows the psychedelic adventures of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they traverse the United States in a painted bus, hosting "Acid Test" parties where attendees are given LSD. The narrative is a vivid exploration of the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s, capturing the spirit of the era through the lens of this eccentric group and their hallucinogenic experiences. It's a seminal work of New Journalism, blending reportage with literary techniques to create a highly subjective, immersive account of the Pranksters' journey.

  • Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

    The novel follows the journey of a 29-year-old poet who is struggling with her identity and self-worth. She is in an unhappy marriage and fantasizes about a life of sexual and personal freedom. Her fantasies center around the "zipless fuck", a spontaneous and impersonal sexual encounter. She embarks on an affair with a British psychoanalyst in an attempt to realize her fantasies, but ultimately learns that true liberation comes from within.

  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

    This book is a seminal feminist text that explores the oppression of women in society. It critiques the traditional roles and expectations of women in the mid-20th century, arguing that societal norms and conventions force women into a secondary, submissive role, effectively castrating them. The book encourages women to reject these norms and to embrace their own sexual liberation, arguing for the need for a revolution in the way women perceive themselves and their place in society.

  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

    The novel presents the story of an innovative architect, who values his individualism and creativity above all else. He refuses to conform to traditional architectural designs, which leads to his struggle against a system that rewards mediocrity and conformity. Despite numerous setbacks and rejections, he remains true to his unique vision and principles. The book explores themes of objectivism, individualism, and capitalism, challenging the reader to consider the value of standing alone against the collective.

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter

    The book explores concepts of formal systems, recursion, self-reference, and infinity through the interdisciplinary lens of mathematics, art, and music. The narrative intertwines biographical sketches of the titular figures - a mathematician, an artist, and a composer - with dialogues and discussions to illustrate complex ideas. The author uses these figures as metaphors to delve into the nature of human cognition and consciousness, suggesting that our minds are essentially self-referential systems akin to the works of Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

    Set during the end of World War II, the novel follows Tyrone Slothrop, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, as he tries to uncover the truth behind a mysterious device, the "Schwarzgerät", that the Germans are using in their V-2 rockets. The narrative is complex and multi-layered, filled with a vast array of characters and subplots, all connected by various themes such as paranoia, technology, and the destructive nature of war. The book is known for its encyclopedic nature and its challenging, postmodernist style.

  • The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln

    The book in question presents a controversial hypothesis about the history of Christianity, suggesting that Jesus Christ may have survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene, and fathered a lineage that later became the Merovingian dynasty of France. The authors weave together a narrative that includes secret societies such as the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar, proposing that these groups have guarded the truth about Jesus's descendants for centuries. The book combines historical research, religious lore, and conspiracy theory to challenge traditional Christian dogma, positing that the Holy Grail is not a physical chalice but rather a metaphor for the bloodline of Jesus.

  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

    "I Capture the Castle" is a coming-of-age novel that tells the story of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her eccentric family living in a dilapidated English castle during the 1930s. Cassandra's father is a reclusive writer suffering from writer's block and her stepmother is a bohemian artist. The family's life changes dramatically when two American brothers inherit the estate. The novel, written in diary format, explores themes of love, poverty, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

    The novel is a postmodernist narrative that follows the adventures of the reader, who is trying to read a book called "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller." However, the reader keeps encountering obstacles that prevent him from finishing the book, including printer's errors, censorship, and interruptions from other characters. The story is interspersed with the beginnings of ten different novels, each interrupted at a moment of suspense. The book is a meditation on reading, writing, and the nature of narrative itself.

  • Iron John by Robert Bly

    The book is a deep exploration of modern masculinity, drawing upon an ancient fairy tale to argue that contemporary society has lost touch with traditional male archetypes. Through a blend of mythology, poetry, and psychological insight, the author examines the critical stages of male development, advocating for a return to more emotionally rich and spiritually connected forms of manhood. He encourages men to rediscover and embrace their innate masculine qualities, such as strength, passion, and purpose, while also promoting a healthy balance with the more nurturing and compassionate aspects of their personalities. The work has been influential in the men's movement, challenging men to confront their fears and wounds in order to grow into more whole and integrated individuals.

  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

    The book tells the story of Jonathan Livingston, a seagull who is bored with the daily squabbles over food and is seized by a passion for flight. He pushes himself, learning everything he can about flying, to the point of being ostracized from his flock. He becomes an extremely high flyer, and meets other gulls who have been ostracized for not conforming. The story is about self-perfection and self-sacrifice for the sake of a higher purpose, symbolizing the pursuit of perfection in some form.

  • The Magus by John Fowles

    The novel is a psychological drama that follows a young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, who takes a teaching post on a remote Greek island to escape his dull life and a failed relationship. There, he meets a wealthy, mysterious man who introduces him to psychological games that blend myth, reality, and illusion. As Nicholas falls deeper into these manipulative scenarios, he begins to question his own sanity and reality. The story is filled with existential themes, exploring the nature of personal freedom, love, and the blurred line between reality and fantasy.

  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

    "Labyrinths" is a collection of short stories and essays that explore complex themes of infinity, parallel universes, and the blurred lines between reality and illusion. The narratives often feature protagonists who are scholars or librarians, trapped in surreal, metaphysical landscapes. The author's unique writing style combines elements of magical realism, philosophy, and detective fiction, creating an intricate web of narratives that challenge the reader's perception of reality and fiction.

  • The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

    "The Leopard" is a historical novel set in 19th-century Sicily, during the time of the Italian unification or Risorgimento. It centers on an aging, aristocratic protagonist who is coming to terms with the decline of his class and the rise of a new social order. The narrative weaves together personal drama with the larger political and social upheaval of the time, providing a rich, nuanced portrait of a society in transition. Despite his resistance to change, the protagonist ultimately recognizes its inevitability and the futility of his efforts to preserve the old ways.

  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

    This novel is a complex narrative that weaves together three distinct yet intertwined stories. The first story is set in 1930s Moscow and follows the devil and his entourage as they wreak havoc on the city's literary elite. The second story is a historical narrative about Pontius Pilate and his role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The third story is a love story between the titular Master, a writer who has been driven to madness by the criticism of his work, and his devoted lover, Margarita. The novel is a satirical critique of Soviet society, particularly the literary establishment, and its treatment of artists. It also explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the nature of good and evil.

  • No Logo by Naomi Klein

    This book explores the negative effects of corporate branding and globalization. It critiques the marketing strategies of large corporations, arguing that they exploit workers and manipulate consumers. The author also discusses how these corporations have a significant influence on culture and public space. The book suggests that consumer activism and grassroots movements can serve as effective counter-forces to corporate power.

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac

    This novel follows the story of a young man and his friend as they embark on a series of cross-country road trips across America during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The protagonist, driven by a desire for freedom and a quest for identity, encounters a series of eccentric characters and experiences the highs and lows of the Beat Generation. The narrative is a testament to the restlessness of youth and the allure of adventure, underscored by themes of jazz, poetry, and drug use.

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

    This book is a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the adventures of a journalist and his attorney as they embark on a drug-fueled trip to Las Vegas. The narrative is a wild and hallucinatory exploration of the American Dream, filled with biting social commentary and outrageous antics. The protagonist's quest for the American Dream quickly devolves into an exploration of the darker side of human nature, highlighting the excesses and depravities of 1960s American society.

  • The Outsider by Colin Wilson

    "The Outsider" is a seminal work of existentialist thought that explores the psyche of individuals who stand on the fringes of society, those who feel a profound sense of alienation and disconnection from the world around them. The book delves into the lives and works of various historical figures, including artists, writers, and philosophers, to examine the role of the outsider in shaping human consciousness and culture. It discusses the outsider's struggle with self-identity and the search for meaning in an indifferent universe, ultimately seeking to understand the potential for transcendence and the ways in which these individuals can reconcile their existential angst with the demands of everyday life.

  • The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

    "The Prophet" is a collection of poetic essays that are philosophical, spiritual, and, above all, inspirational. The central character, a prophet, is about to board a ship which will carry him home after 12 years spent living in a foreign city. Before he departs, he is stopped by a group of people, with whom he discusses topics such as life and the human condition. The book is divided into chapters dealing with love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death.

  • The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, Peter Miles

    "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" is a semi-autobiographical novel that explores the lives of a group of working men in the fictional town of Mugsborough, and their struggle to survive in a society marred by poverty and exploitation. The story primarily focuses on a socialist protagonist who endeavors to enlighten his fellow workers about capitalism's inherent flaws and the necessity for social change, all while battling the dire conditions of his own life. The novel is a critique of capitalism and a call for a socialist revolution.

  • The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald

    "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám" is a collection of quatrains that explores the themes of life's fleeting nature, the pursuit of happiness, and the questioning of existence through the lens of a skeptical philosopher. The poems reflect on the joys and sorrows of life, the beauty of the natural world, and the importance of living in the moment, often with a tone of melancholic wisdom. The work is renowned for its profound and lyrical musings on mortality and the eternal questions that have puzzled humanity, all while encouraging readers to cherish the transient pleasures of life before they slip away.

  • The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

    This travelogue chronicles a journey through Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930s, capturing the author's keen observations of the architecture, landscapes, and people he encounters. The narrative combines historical research, personal anecdotes, and vivid descriptions, providing a unique insight into these regions during this period. The author's witty and engaging style, combined with his passion for architecture, makes this book not just a travel diary but a valuable piece of cultural and historical documentation.

  • Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

    "Siddhartha" is a novel about the spiritual journey of a young man named Siddhartha during the time of Gautama Buddha. Born into an Indian Brahmin family, Siddhartha rejects his privileged life to seek spiritual enlightenment. His journey takes him through periods of harsh asceticism, sensual indulgence, material wealth, and finally, to the simple life of a ferryman on a river where he finds peace and wisdom. The book explores themes of self-discovery, spiritual quest, and the desire for a meaningful life.

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    This classic novel follows the emotional journey of a young artist named Werther, who falls deeply in love with a beautiful woman named Lotte, only to discover that she is already engaged to another man. His unrequited love and deep despair eventually lead him to take his own life. The story, told through letters written by Werther, explores themes of love, loss, and the tragic consequences of emotional turmoil.

  • Story of O by Pauline Reage

    "Story of O" is a tale of female submission involving a beautiful Parisian fashion photographer named O, who is taught to be constantly available for any form of sexual conduct, to ensure her lover's satisfaction. As part of her training, she agrees to be regularly stripped, bound, whipped, and shared among several men. The story explores the themes of love, freedom, and the paradox of control and power in sexual relationships.

  • The Stranger by Albert Camus

    The narrative follows a man who, after the death of his mother, falls into a routine of indifference and emotional detachment, leading him to commit an act of violence on a sun-drenched beach. His subsequent trial becomes less about the act itself and more about his inability to conform to societal norms and expectations, ultimately exploring themes of existentialism, absurdism, and the human condition.

  • The Teachings Of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda

    The book is a captivating narrative that explores the author's experiences as an anthropology student under the tutelage of a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Through a series of extraordinary encounters and the use of powerful psychotropic plants, the protagonist is guided on a spiritual journey to discover an alternative perception of reality. The work delves into the complexities of shamanism and the indigenous knowledge of the Sonoran Desert, challenging conventional understandings of consciousness and reality, and offering insights into a mystical tradition deeply rooted in Native American culture.

  • Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain

    Testament of Youth is a poignant memoir detailing the author's experiences during World War I. The narrative follows her journey from her early life, her time as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse serving in London, Malta, and France, and her later years as a writer and pacifist. The author's personal loss, including the death of her fiancé and her brother, and the impact of the war on her generation, is a central theme, offering a unique female perspective on the devastating effects of war.

  • Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

    This philosophical novel explores the idea of the Übermensch, or "Overman," a superior human being who has achieved self-mastery and created personal meaning in life. The protagonist, Zarathustra, descends from his solitary life in the mountains to share his wisdom with humanity. Through a series of speeches and encounters, he challenges traditional beliefs about good, evil, truth, and religion, and advocates for the transcendence of man into a higher form of existence. The book is noted for its critique of morality, its poetic and often cryptic language, and its exploration of complex philosophical concepts.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    Set in the racially charged South during the Depression, the novel follows a young girl and her older brother as they navigate their small town's societal norms and prejudices. Their father, a lawyer, is appointed to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, forcing the children to confront the harsh realities of racism and injustice. The story explores themes of morality, innocence, and the loss of innocence through the eyes of the young protagonists.

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

    The book is a philosophical novel that explores the protagonist's journey across the United States on a motorcycle with his son, during which he delves into questions about life, philosophy, and the nature of "Quality". The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to the protagonist's life before the journey, including his time as a university professor and his struggle with mental illness. The book aims to reconcile the dichotomy between classical and romantic understandings of the world, ultimately arguing for a holistic approach that integrates both perspectives.

About this list

Telegraph, 50 Books

A cult book may be hard to define but one thing is for sure: you know a cult book when you see one. Cult books are somehow, intangibly, different from simple bestsellers - though many of them are that. And people have passionate feelings on both sides: Our critics present a selection of the most notable cult writing from the past two centuries. Some is classic. Some is catastrophic. All of it had the power to inspire

Added 4 months ago.

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