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.