An Alternative List of “Best Cult Books”: Spanning Generations, Geographical Locations and Countercultures

by Nisi Shawl and Nin Harris

Nisi: Cult books are, by my definition, books that introduce the reader to a culture, a group of people who share values delineated by the book.  Such books may be big seller or underground hits passed along via loans, but they have an impact beyond that of run-of-the-mill works.  And they draw people in rather than merely preaching to the choir: they convert readers into believers.

Nin and I noticed that a list promoted by the Telegraph seemed very male, very white.  This list is meant to supplement and complement that list.  It includes a token three white males.  One of these is gay.  As for the other two, what they’ve written about racial issues could certainly only have been written by members of the dominant paradigm.

Of the 50 books on the Telegraph list I’d read 26.  I suspect that by producing this list we’re not saying that the other one is necessarily invalid, but merely that Nin and I may have been invited to different cults than were those who created the Telegraph’s version.


Nin: When I posted the Telegraph’s list of  Best Cult Books on social media (with the inevitable accompanying rant), I  noticed the discrepancy between what the Telegraph considered influential and what most of us from the postcolonial/Othered world would consider influential. Nisi agreed that PoC and women/non-heteronormative people were poorly represented on that list. So here’s our alternative. Ground-breaking in their own way, not necessarily global, the books listed have made waves in more than one cult. Nisi began by offering 33 books on her list, and I compiled the rest. It took some time and hard thinking. We invite those of you who may have other books that you’d prefer to be on the list to leave a comment, or to share an alternative to our alternative list!

(Note: HTML does lists differently from M$ word, so for purposes of curiosity/accuracy/context since we have different cultural/geographical backgrounds and are from different generations , Nisi did the list and annotations from books #1-33, and I listed books #34-50 and provided those annotations.)

  1. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The Telegraph lists Labyrinths by Borges, but really, there can be more than one Latin American magic realist title on a list of cult books.
  2. The Female Man by Joanna Russ: Women, often relegated to the margins of literature as we are to the margins of other endeavors, have produced several cult fantasies and science fictions in those marginalized genres.  I’m only naming five.
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: For many this was a gateway drug leading to a barely satiable demand for more feminist SF.
  4. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
  5. The Art of War by Sun Tzu: For those wanting to join the cult of the CEO.
  6. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: You *had* to read this if you wanted even a modicum of street cred.
  7. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  9. Roots by Alex Haley: Propounding the radical concept that slavery was a story about black people.  It’s taken more than 40 years for comparable work to emerge.
  10. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
  11. House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday: Cult poetry.
  12. Howl by Allen Ginsberg: More cult poetry.
  13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  14. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany: As much of a freak flag as long hair; cognoscenti insisted on reading it multiple times.
  15. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide by Ntozake Shange
  16. Jambalaya by Luisah Teish: Feminist voodoo; the only book of its kind for decades, and still known in some spiritual circles simply as “the book.”
  17. Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler: A tough pick between this and Kindred.  But Kindred is often encountered as a requirement in college classes, while Wild Seed inspires the kind of fanatical devotion only cult literature can.
  18. Cheri by Colette: Not to get *too* Anglophone here; this novel pretty much made Colette’s international reputation and summed up the recently lost world of the Belle Epoque upon its 1920 publication.
  19. Black Looks by bell hooks: Ain’t I a womanist?
  20. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown: As essential to 1970s dykedom as a leather-billed patchwork chauffeur’s cap.
  21. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: So one could understand black female antecedents’ lives verbatim.
  22. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
  23. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  24. The Sensuous Woman by J: The radical idea that women had sexual cores to their beings.  Oh, sure, and that this core was in service to their male partners.
  25. I Hate to Housekeep by Peg Bracken: The radical idea that women might not be all that deeply invested in spotless crystal and shiny waxy linoleum floors.
  26. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  27. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  28. I Ching (the Wilhelm Baynes translation): Not just to be read, but to be used daily. (additional note from #mythicfolk TAB, I Ching enthusiast: “Compare across translations for better results”)
  29. Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
  30. Moosewood Cookbook by MollieKatzen: Don’t think cookbooks deserve cult status?  What a great way to disenfranchise women–restrict them to certain concerns and then deny that those concerns included influential icons!
  31. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: This book basically started the environmental movement.
  32. Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moor Lappe: This book basically popularized conscience-driven vegetarianism.
  33. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: A white man finds out it’s not easy being brown.
  34. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola: He was doing slipstream PoC fantasy before it was cool. Not only possibly the most cult book, but possibly the most hipster.
  35. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Influential to an entire body of literature and to aspiring poco writers and artists everywhere. Need I say more?
  36. Woman, Native, Other by Trinh T-Minh Ha: A clarion call for third-wave feminists of colour.
  37. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe : This book influenced a whole slew of other books and is possibly the prototype for more than one subgenre, romance or Gothic or otherwise.
  38. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua
  39. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  40. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: really, I don’t think one could get more iconic in terms of cult figures than Mr. Darcy, do you? Also schooling generations of women on what to expect (and not to expect) from your Mr. Not-So-Right.
  41. Wild Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: While it may seem a little difficult at first to imagine this as a “cult” book, the sheer conversation-starter quality of the novel, the fact that it was one of the very first “feminist revisions” of a canonical literary work, the fact that more than one late twentieth century novel alludes to it, and yes, the fact that it has fueled one aspect of a gendered counter-culture makes it cult in my books, regardless of whether or not it’s now almost a cliched offering on many college reading lists.
  42. Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes: I’d explain to you why this book is important but wait, I need to run into the woods to howl at the moon for a bit…
  43. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Problematic, maddening and exhilarating all at once, this book has won acclaim abroad but is rife with controversy in India. Love it, hate it, it is a literary masterpiece, and controversial enough to rate a cult rating.
  44. Matigari by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O : Ngugi Wa Thiong’O still inspires hushed awe in postcolonial literature circles, for his decision to write in Kikuyu instead of English, for his politics, which are encapsulated in books like the troubling Matigari.
  45. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi : The graphic novel that introduced to most of the known world the fact that Iranian women had voices, a kick-ass attitude and a sense of humour.
  46. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro : A haunting dystopian novel for our times which emotionally disturbs and grips most of the people who read it. Still discussed and debated, perennially troubling.
  47. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: When it came out it was one of the most-talked about novels for quite awhile, due not just for its epic length but for the intricacies of its plot. I can’t think of getting more cult than that.
  48. This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer:  Written while incarcerated, the Buru Quartet (represented by the first volume here) is testament to the literary genius of a man who refused to be silenced while held as a political prisoner. An underground writer denied agency in his own nation, he’s been hailed as Southeast Asia’s best potential Nobel Prize Laureate.
  49. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: Only the book that started the whole cult of culinary fiction.
  50. Dykes to Watch out For by Alison Bechdel: the iconic comic strip that gave us the Bechdel Test, the benchmark (modified more than once) by which some of us judge works of literature, film, and television series. Made even more cult thanks to the good work of Anita Sarkeesian over at Feminist Frequency.