Defining a cult book is not easy. Let’s start with the more obvious aspects of cult lit. To begin, a cult book should have a passionate following. Buckets of books fall into this category, including classics like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. But even mega sellers Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey can be considered cult lit by that definition. A cult book should have the ability to alter a reader’s life or influence great change, and for the purpose of this list, it should also be a bit odd and a tad obscure.
Many of the titles we've selected have barely seen the light of day beyond their incredibly dedicated and perhaps obsessive following. Only five copies of Leon Genonceaux’s 1891 novel The Tutu existed until the 1990s because Genonceaux was already in trouble with French police for immoral publishing when he wrote it and feared a life in prison if he distributed the book to the public. Similarly, The Red Book by Carl Jung was reserved for Jung’s heirs for decades before it was made available to a wider audience.
Some of the books on our list are more widely known (though not necessarily widely understood). Robert M. Pirsig introduced the Metaphysics of Quality, his own theory of reality, in his philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was rejected by over 100 publishers before it was finally published by William Morrow & Company in 1974 and today it’s regarded as one the most influential texts in American culture.
From funny fiction and serious science fiction to knitting manuals and alternative art, the books on this list have steered the course of an individual's life, created a wave of change in a society, culture, or generation, and garnered fanatic attention from a few or few million readers for their quirky and obscure content.
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The Fan Man
by William Kotzwinkle
This cult comic novel tells the story of a drugged up hippy who manages to attract a following of fans with his obscure lifestyle.
A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Published over a decade after Toole’s suicide, this comedic novel celebrates the anti-hero, a misfit struggling to find his place in the modern world.
The Alexandria Quartet
by Lawrence Durrell
An early example of quantum fiction, Durrell’s tetralogy exposed readers to not only the notions of continuum, but also to life in the Mediterranean.
by William S. Burroughs
Controversial and banned in numerous American states for its profanity, obscenity, and incessant portrayals of drug use, the book has collected a steady and dedicated following in the fight against censorship.
Ham on Rye
by Charles Bukowski
Semi-autobiographical coming of age story set during the Great Depression, a critical work to any Bukowski follower. The title is thought to be a play on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
The Red Book
by Carl Jung
The manuscript was written in the years following Jung’s separation from Freud, but Jung’s heirs did not allow publication until the following century. Until then, it was reserved for their eyes only.
by Herman Hesse
This story of a spiritual self-discovery became an influencial text in 1960s America after it was translated from German.
The Doors of Perception
by Aldous Huxley
The controversial book details Huxley’s own mescaline trip and is an important text within the study of psychedelics and the history of understanding drugs in a spiritual context. It’s also the namesake of Jim Morrison’s band.
The Jerusalem Bible
illustrations by Salvador Dali
This out-of-print edition features 32 full-page color illustrations by surrealist Salvador Dali.
Howl and Other Poems
by Allen Ginsberg
When Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and charged with obscenity for publishing Howl, demand for the book erupted. It became a pivotal work for young people in the 1960s.
The Dice Man
by Luke Rhinehart
A psychiatrist makes life decisions based on the casting of dice. Many readers have followed suit, confirming the book’s subheader, “This book will change your life.”
by Ayn Rand
The story of Howard Roark, a young architect who refuses to compromise his artistic integrity. The book became an anthem for unrelenting individuals in the mid-century.
by Thomas Pynchon
Any Pynchon novel would be a good fit for this list. This 1973 title about power and war was released at a critical time in America.
by John Fowles
The story of a young disillusioned English teacher and the psychological mind games of an eccentric Greek recluse.
Tree of Codes
by Jonathan Safran Foer
The book was created by cutting pieces of text from Foer's favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles
and has quickly become a vital piece of work to fans of die-cuts.
by Luigi Serafini
Thought to be one of the weirdest books ever published, artists, philosophers, and code breakers have obsessed over the book's illustrations, meaning and text.
A cryptographer’s dream. This illustrated codex from the 15th century was handwritten in an unknown writing system and is still studied extensively.
by Leon Genonceaux
Author and publisher Leon Genonceaux was already in trouble with French police for immoral publishing when he wrote this twisted novel in 1905. He held it back, and only five copies existed until the 1990’s. Publishers of the ‘anti-classic’ Atlas Press released 2000 copies in 2013.
by William Gibson
The seminal work of the cyberfunk culture popularized the term cyberspace, coined by the author himself.
Ralph 124C 41+
by Hugo Gernsback
An early and incredibly influential science fiction novel. Despite being published in 1911, the book successfully predicted television and transcontinental air service, among other modern achievements.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
The story of Satan appearing in atheistic Soviet Union was banned by Joseph Stalin. Today, Bulgakov fans and Satanist groups in Moscow gather at museums dedicated to the author and his work.
Magick Liber ABA Book Four
by Aleister Crowley
The magnum opus of one of the most important figures of the Western occult practice, and the inspiration behind Regardie’s work.
Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell
by Brian May, Denis Pellerin, Paula Fleming
Diableries, or Devilments, is a series of stereoscopic photographs of sculpted clay vignettes satirically depicting life in Hell. Dating back to 1860, these stereocards are prized by collectors.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
translated by Edward Fitzgerald
Originally written in the 11th century by a Perisan poet, the book of poetry has been translated by many and is subject to various interpretations.
Twentysix Gasoline Stations
by Edward Ruscha
An odd and highly coveted collection of photographs of gas stations across Western America. The book was the first of its kind among pop artists.
Birds of Britain
by John D. Green
A highly sought after out-of-print photobook from 1967 that details many of the famous British women from the Swinging Sixties in lavish photographs.
The Recently Deflowered Girl
by Edward Gorey
An illustrated parody of an old-fashioned etiquette book originally published in 1965 and intended for women who have recently been, well, deflowered. The book generated a new following and was republished when it was mentioned by a blogger in 2009.
Seven Years in Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
The text that introduced Tibet to a world of readers who then rallied for Tibet in its fight for freedom.
The Female Eunuch
by Germaine Greer
Greer believed the nuclear family repressed and desexualized women. Published in 1970, the book was a key text in the early stages of the feminist movement.
Honor Blackman’s Book of Self Defense
by Honor Blackman
Who better to teach self-defense than 1960s The Avengers star and feminist icon Honor Blackman? The manual is one of the first ever to be aimed specifically at women.
Fanny Hill’s Cookbook
by Lionel Braun and William Adams
Quirky and erotic, this comical cookbook is illustrated by Brian Forbes. Fanny made her first appearance in John Cleland’s 1748 novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
by Alice Starmore
The knitting world has elected Starmore queen, but her books are largely out-of-print. This rare title was inspired by the Tudor royals and their embellished fashions and is in high demand among knitters.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
by Cameron Crowe
When Crowe went undercover at Clairemont High School in the late 1970s he came out with the book that defines the high school experience.
by Stephen King
Published under the name Richard Bachman, this leather-bound copy has four Winchester bullets emerging from the front cover and the shell cases entering the rear of the book. This and other editions are passionately coveted by the most fanatical King readers.
The Modern Gunsmith
by James Virgil Howe
Originally published in 1934 and now out-of-print, this gun manual is still the go-to book for gun enthusiasts.
A Treasury of Great Recipes
by Vincent Price
Unlike most celebrity cookbooks, Price was actually a gourmet cook. This out-of-print cookbook is highly sought after.
by Len Deighton
Spy novelist and cookery writer Len Deighton attracted a dedicated following with his quirky recipe book.