Cult Books?

Given that lists are always fascinating and disappointing, there’s a great piece up at the Telegraph on the “50 Best Cult Books” (hat tip to Whitney). The authors have a difficult time constructing the criteria for the category, as any of us would. What do you count as “cult”? What makes it so? For all of the possibilities, the one that stuck with me was this:

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.

Evocative and metaphoric it may be, but it’s a viscerally satisfying way to differentiate the cult novel from the bestseller, the merely popular, the truly weird. I’m particularly taken with the notion of the book as totem. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time on college campuses, but aren’t there always students (and professors, for that matter) that carry a particularly dog eaten copy of the cult book around with them? Doesn’t it become one of the ways that we identify our essential, unique identities (you know, the one that we share with 400,000 other people)? Aren’t those the ones with the characters that speak to us, make us right with the world, or at least explain the wrongness of the world and our own alienation?

Having said that, the Telegraph list can’t help but disappoint. To their credit, it’s a staunchly historical and multi-national list (including The Sorrows of Young Werther and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—I don’t know how many other categories can claim that). It’s multi-genre as well, featuring self-help books, novels, and philosophical tomes (Godel Escher Bach? I dragged a copy of that around with me for years before I gave up). But the scope robs it of something too; perhaps it’s modern resonance? Were 19th century cult readers—even if they did off themselves in a tribute to Goethe—like 1960’s drug-addled cult readers? Is every cult the same?

For this reader, the comments become the saving grace of the list. Give them a read, and you’ll find yourself testing your own definition of “cult.” The Lovely Bones? Um, no. It was beautiful and sad and a page-turner, but not a cult classic. Fight Club or Trainspotting? Now you’re talking. It’s become a cliche, now, for sure, but it’s almost impossible to read Fight Club without getting sucked into it as a world view. It’s insanely quotable too—maybe in the future we WILL all be wearing leather clothes… While I’m not a huge Philip Dick fan, he certainly deserves a place. And to the commenter who asks whether a book that’s assigned for high school reading can be counted (we’re looking at you, To Kill a Mockingbird), I can only say amen.

4 thoughts on “Cult Books?

  1. What a strange list! They seem to make the slightest effort to go beyond the moment, but there’s a lot here that’s far too new to really cross the line between fad and cult. A book has to be around long enough to get battered and dog eared, to cause havoc in lives and change destinies — or make you think it did.

    Was Stranger in a Strange Land on the list and I missed it? Here’s a cult classic that started its own religion, the Church of All Worlds (still rockin’ in the free world today).

    And Tolkien — what would the 60s be without Tolkien? Is there a prog band that didn’t take their name from the books? As perhaps the only medievalist who hasn’t read the trilogy (for which I am annually excoriated, but damn I hate his prose), I didn’t realise the latter aspect until I saw the films (“Shadowfax, too?! Jesus!”), but having hung around a lot of old hippies in my hometown (well, and elsewhere, come to think of it), there’s nothing quite like the counterculture influence of that book.

    Much overlooked now, John Gardner’s Grendel, too, had that kind of huge influence in its time — which is why Julie Taymor turned it into an opera. Maybe that’s the real judge of a cult book — that it has a legacy where readers are compelled to make it manifest in another form. Or perhaps I’m just up too early to think again.

  2. Your definition at the end there is a far better rule of thumb than the one the Telegraph is working with. How intriguing, the idea that we’d be so fascinated by the book that we’d need to turn it into something else. Tolkien certainly fits the bill there (hello, Peter Jackson). Do all of the comic books of late fall into that category too?

  3. I think it’s because my obsession in the back of my mind is to write the Nick Lowe musical, spreading all his songs before me like a set of tarot cards and assembling the narrative from them. I suspect most of the comics films fall into the same — certainly Sam Raimi’s Spider-man, although less so Lee’s Hulk (hence part of its failure). Kavalier and Clay…

    The Lord of the Rings Musical (which I should admit to being curious enough to see last year in London) — there’s a far-reaching influence! Then again, that John Waters’ Hairspray could become a musical and then a film of that musical absolutely blows my mind. Well, maybe not as much as the thought of a Pink Flamingos musical (I can dream).

    I dunno — I’m wandering back to Eliot and stealing (as better than imitating) and there’s something to be said for that. I’m writing a character now who gets every quote wrong, but quotes constantly. As a medievalist I laugh at the idea of originality, but I do still think it’s possible. How? I don’t know: It’s a mystery.

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