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…
Some things crop up often: drugs, travel, philosophy, an implied two fingers to conventional wisdom, titanic self-absorption, a tendency to date fast and a paperback jacket everyone recognises with a faint wince. But these don’t begin to cover it.
Cult books include some of the most cringemaking collections of bilge ever collected between hard covers. But they also include many of the key texts of modern feminism; some of the best journalism and memoirs; some of the most entrancing and original novels in the canon.
Cult books are somehow, intangibly, different from simple bestsellers – though many of them are that. The Carpetbaggers was a bestseller; Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a cult.
They are different from books that have big new ideas – though many of them are that. On The Origin of Species changed history; but Thus Spoke Zarathustra was a cult.
They are different from How-To books – though many of them are that. The Highway Code is a How-To book; Baby and Child Care was a cult. These are books that became personally important to their readers: that changed the way they lived, or the way they thought about how they lived.
The Bible, the Koran and the Communist Manifesto, of course, changed lives – but, in the first instance, they changed the life of the tribe, not of the individual.
In compiling our list, we were looking for the sort of book that people wear like a leather jacket or carry around like a totem. The book that rewires your head: that turns you on to psychedelics; makes you want to move to Greece; makes you a pacifist; gives you a way of thinking about yourself as a woman, or a voice in your head that makes it feel okay to be a teenager; conjures into being a character who becomes a permanent inhabitant of your mental flophouse.
We were able to agree, finally, on one thing: you know a cult book when you see one. And people have passionate feelings on both sides: our appeal for suggestions yielded enough for a list at least three times as long as this one.
So if you’ve loved or hated or grown out of or grown into one of these books – or another book we’ve omitted – please visit our website and tell us about it.
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
A Rebours by JK Huysmans (1884)
Plotless, morality-free salute to decadence. An individual based on its French author lounges about his luxurious home indulging in pursuits such as embedding gemstones in the shell of a tortoise until, loaded down, it expires. Dripping with Baudelairean ennui (and not a little dull itself), A Rebours was a bible for the Symbolists, Oscar Wilde and alienated creative types everywhere. SD
Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock (1946)
Childcare experts go in and out of fashion, but Dr Benjamin Spock remains the daddy of them all. From his reassuring first sentence – "You know more than you think you do" – he revolutionised the way parents thought about their children, asserting the right to cuddle, comfort and follow your instincts. He also tells you how to deal with croup. SC
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
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1993)
Deep in the South American jungle an intrepid explorer is about to stumble on a sequence of ancient prophecies that could change our way of living, even save the world. If only we didn’t have to buy the other novels in that the series to find out what they were! For a similar effect on the cheap, rent an Indiana-Jonesalike film – Tomb Raider, say – and ask a hippy to whisper nonsense in your ear while you're watching it. TM
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
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
Ignatius J Reilly is a fat anti-hero to thwart Promethean selfdramatisation in any reader. With the medieval poetry of Hroswitha swirling in a head jammed into a green hunting cap with earpieces, Reilly eats steadily, despises modernity, seeks solace in canine fantasies and remembers with terror his one experience of leaving New Orleans. CH
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782)
In the age of titles such as "No, Please, Daddy, Not There!", the soul-searching autobiography looks about as cutting edge as a Findus Crispy Pancake. But when Rousseau told his story, confessions had never been so confessional. "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent," he declared, rightly. He added, wrongly: "…and which, once complete, will have no imitator." SL
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)
A Calvinist convinced of his indefectible election to salvation is led to acts of murder by Gil-Martin, his devilish doppelganger. More a myth than a religious satire, it vividly survives James Hogg's not entirely satisfactory manner of recounting it. Consider this: there may be a Gil-Martin near you. CH
Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health by L Ron Hubbard (1950)
Do you often feel unhappy? Depressed? Ill at ease with others? You will if you read this. Creepy bit of mind-mechanics by the indifferent sci-fi novelist who founded Scientology. 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
Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
Sandworms, ornithopters, Atreides, Harkonnen and spice: chop and blend for sci-fi fantasy, strangely like an intergalactic cousin of James Clavell. The first in an increasingly soap-operatic sequence. Equally cultishly adapted for the screen by David Lynch, and the root of many a lifelong passion for complex character names and/or arcane ceremonial weaponry. TM
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
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973)
More 1970s searching for "authenticity" and "selfhood": a housewife has an affair with a radical psychoanalyst ("Adrian Goodlove", geddit?) and fantasises about sexual liberation. At the end, though, she goes back to her husband. John Updike called it the most "delicious erotic novel a woman everwrote" – but really, what on earth was all the fuss about? DS
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
Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter (1979)
About what it means to think, and how that happens, this is written in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. Pattern recognition in the work of geniuses. Loved by maths geeks and anybody with Asperger's syndrome and anyone with sense. But at root a chess textbook. AMcK
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
Europe-hopping comic metanovel of war and power, stuffed with maths, shaggy-dog stories, childish humour and ravishing sentences. And lots of rockets. Genius, though long enough to lie unfinished. TM
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (1982)
Similar territory to The Da Vinci Code but earlier, less balefully stupid and with the nerve to claim factual accuracy (its authors took Dan Brown to court and lost). The usual song and dance about Templars, bloodlines of Christ and global conspiracies, but somehow still chilling for all that. Staple text of the bonkers brigade. TM
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)
This heady mix of romance and reality opens with its teenage heroine Cassandra Mortmain writing while sitting in the kitchen sink. It ends with the words "I love you" scribbled in the margins of the imaginary journal that forms the substance of the novel. In between a story unfolds that feeds the fantasies of every lovelorn young girl; but its status owes much to the way that, as in life, things don’t end happily ever after. SC
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979)
A book composed of the first chapters from other invented books. Either a classic work of literary snakes and ladders or a tiresomely recursive bit of postmodern sterility depending on your interlocutor. Italo Calvino was arguably better elsewhere. TM
Iron John: a Book About Men by Robert Bly (1990)
For decades, the cowed menfolk of the world ambled about in pinafores, dusting ornaments and saying "yes, dear". Then Robert Bly wrote Iron John, invented mythopoetic masculinity, and the daft creatures all rushed off into the woods together, hugged, bellowed, wept, painted their furry parts blue and felt re-empowered to wee standing up. SL