No matter who you are or where you are from, everyone knows at least one “cult classic” genre. There are cult classic films, like “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” cult classic television shows like “Twin Peaks,” but did you know there are cult classic literary works as well? Here are the top five novels you should read if you are desperate to obtain ultimate book club status.
First up is J.D Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Known widely as a novel idolized by shooters, outcasts and violent criminals alike, this book gained special notoriety during the heavy publicization of John Lennon’s murder in 1980. After the perpetrator, Mark David Chapman, cracked open Salinger’s magnum opus at the crime scene while awaiting his eventual arrest, much attention turned to the novel’s complex and controversial themes of innocence, rebellion and isolation. The work opens with the life of Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, who was recently expelled from prominent boarding school Pencey Preparatory Academy. To escape the dreariness of the environment, Holden hops on a train to New York City and subsequently narrates his exploits there primarily through a stream-of-consciousness style. Though it has a dark history, the work has struck a chord with adolescent and adult readers for its emphasis on teenage angst and its relevance as the very first “coming-of-age” novel.
Another novel heavily tinged with themes of violence and aggression, Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” takes place in a dystopian English society filled to the brim with a population of vicious, criminally-inclined teenagers. Fifteen-year-old Alex narrates the book, chronicling the nights he and his close group of friends (referred to as “droogs” in the novel’s Anglo-Russian slang called “Nadsat”) spend engaging in acts of “ultraviolence.” Upon being captured by the police on a particularly murderous night out, Alex is sentenced to 14 years in prison and is forced to undergo a treatment titled the “Ludovico Technique,” an invasive form of aversion therapy that attempts to cure him of all violent tendencies. The novel highlights the importance of free will, deplores oppressive government, and stresses the necessity of commitment in life, all with a heavy dose of Beethoven, Alex’s favorite composer, throughout.
Written smack dab in the middle of the Beat era and post-war counterculture generation, American writer Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” pays homage to his trips across the country with some of his closest friends. The first draft of the piece was written in a time span of three weeks on what Kerouac referred to as “the scroll” – 120 sheets of blank tracing paper cut to fit and taped together. Like many other novels written during this time, the work is slightly autobiographical, relaying detailed information of the group’s own exploits in poetry, jazz and excessive drug use. The narrator and main character, Sal Paradise, is based on Kerouac himself. Although published in 1957, the book continues to garner success in the modern day, with Time Magazine naming it as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
Fourth on our list is “Lolita.” This work by Russo-American author Nabokov proved controversial from the moment of its conception, staking its claim as a popular banned book throughout the mid to late 1900s. Protagonist Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor, strikes up a sexual relationship with 12-year-old Dolores Haze (whom he affectionately refers to as “Lolita”) after becoming her stepfather. The novel is a whirlwind of drama and tension, with some arguing its status as a classic piece of literature and others refuting it as solely a work of erotic fiction. Nevertheless, “Lolita” gained its cult following rather quickly due to its incessant controversy, and has infiltrated pop culture with Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name, released in 1962, and a reboot film by Adrian Lyne in 1997.
Last, but certainly not least, is Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, approximately one month before Plath’s suicide, “The Bell Jar” is a triumphant work that tackles feminist issues and themes of personal growth head on. The novel centers around Esther Greenwood, a young woman interning at a well-known magazine office in New York City. The stress of her life and work eventually drives her into a psychotic state, leading to her extended commitment in a behavioral hospital. The book draws from Plath’s own autobiographical experiences, having spent a considerable amount of time in a psychiatric facility herself, and is praised for its honest depictions of mental health struggles. The only published novel by this prominent American poet has gained notoriety and respect among much of the population, with “The Bell Jar” a common must-read novel in high school English classrooms.
So, the next time you pass by your friendly neighborhood bookstore, make sure to give one of these novels a try. You never know which work – or which community – you may be engulfed in.