It's a question that keeps book nerds up at night: what makes a book a cult book? Usually, a "cult" book isn't actually a book about cults. Rather, it's a book that mainstream critics panned, but that gained its own dedicated following anyway. Or it's a book that critics loved, but that mainstream readers ignored at the time. Or it's just a really messed up book about drugs. The point is, you know a cult classic when you read one, and sometimes that intense fan following can be a turn-off to even the weirdest of readers. But a lot of these books are celebrated pieces of counter-culture for a good reason. Here are a few cult classics that are worth a read.
You might be surprised to hear that some of these books are considered "cult-y." It turns out that one generation's weird fringe book is the next generation's boring unit in High School English (sorry, Catcher in the Rye). And it's true that these books aren't for everyone. You're not a bad reader if you don't enjoy Naked Lunch. But give some of these books a chance, and you might find that you are one of those rabid fans, after all:
1'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk
Yes, a lot of these books are going to involve violence. Sorry. And yes, I know you already know the twist at the end of Fight Club. And sure, you're probably sick of having this book recommended to you by art bros the world over. But, its reputation aside, Fight Club is a biting critique of hyper-masculinity and the dehumanizing effects of consumer capitalism. If you can get through all that macho nonsense, it's also a pretty fun read.
2'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar has a deeply unfair reputation. People associate Sylvia Plath with sad teenage girls wearing a lot of eyeliner and writing poetry. And to that I say... what's wrong with eyeliner and poetry? The Bell Jar is not only a hilarious, relatable coming-of-age novel, it tackles sexism and terrible internships and the stigma of mental health head on. If only this book on sexism and mental health from the '50s didn't feel quite so relevant today...
3'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac
Oh, Jack Kerouac. You wouldn't want to settle down with him, but he's a hell of a lot of fun for one novel. Sure, he's a little sexist and extremely unaware of his own privilege. And he doesn't really "get" paragraph breaks. But it's so much fun to drive around America with him, eating ice cream and apple pie at roadside diners and pontificating about the sweet melancholy of the open road (black beret and bongo drums optional).
4'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski
OK, only read this cult classic if you truly like to be scared. Because this book will scare you. This book will worm its way into your brain and make you see dark corridors around every corner. It's the story of a young family living in a house that's bigger on the inside than on the outside, reported as though it's a "true story"... but that's only the beginning of the strange, unspeakable horror that is House of Leaves.
5'Kafka on the Shore' by Haruki Murakami
It's hard to think of Murakami as a cult author when he's so widely known, but he most certainly has a cult following. And Kafka on the Shore is up there with all the other cult classics. The story follows the teenage Kafka Tamura into a strange world of talking cats, fish that fall from the sky, and spirits that can slip out of their bodies.
6'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values' by Robert M. Pirsig
If you're looking for generation-changing philosophy and also motorcycles, there's only one book for you. As a father and son travel through the American Northwest, the reader is confronted with the fundamental questions of human existence. Generally, people either find this book mind-blowingly enlightening, or they stop after page one. So I'd say it's worth giving motorcycles a shot, just in case it changes your life.
7'A Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole
This is another one that you're going to either love or hate with a burning passion, depending on how you feel about green hunting caps. Ignatius J. Reilly is the quixotic hero of the book: he's deluded, both tragic and comic, and impossible to look away from as he bumbles from one misadventure to the next.
8'Battle Royale' by Koushun Takami
Forget The Hunger Games. Battle Royale was the first horrifying fight to the death between a bunch of teenagers (I warned you that cult classics tend towards the violent). In Battle Royale, though, you don't get any fashion shows or feasts like in a Suzanne Collins books: it's all unadulterated social commentary and children murdering each other with forks.
9'The Sandman' by Neil Gaiman
If weird (I mean weird) graphic novels are your thing, drop everything and read The Sandman at once. The plot follows Morpheus, the personification of Dream, through his various travels and failed relationships as he tries to manage his sleepy kingdom. But Morpheus himself barely scratches the surface of this strange universe, which weaves together reality, myth, horror, literature, superheroes, and pure invention to create something all its own.
10'I Love Dick' by Chris Kraus
If you've seen ads for the TV adaptation and found yourself incredibly confused, this is the book that started it all. It starts as the story of one woman's obsessive crush on a man called Dick, but it quickly becomes a savagely smart exploration of feminism, the art world, and desire. It's marvelously multi-layered, and the people who love it can't get enough.