Monday 11 April 2011

Blog Birthday & Cult Books

First things first - today marks my fourth blog anniversary! Can't believe it's been going for four years - then again, sometimes I can't believe there was a time when I wasn't blogging. All these milestones seem like opportunities to say how much I appreciate you all, so... I'll do it again! Thanks for reading - I love getting your comments, emails, and book recommendations so much. Balloons!

Now onto the topic of the day... My book group (or, rather, one of my book groups) is incredibly democratic. We have a theme, and suggest titles for it - these go into hat, and six or seven are pulled out. These then go onto the website to get votes. All very slick, and does manage to come up with interesting and varied titles. I was a bit worried that it would result in endless 'issue'-driven book group books, which I find quite dull. You know the sort - The Kite Runner, We Have To Talk About Kevin, The Lovely Bones. The type of books that every book group reads. But our polls have resulted in much more interesting choices (and also two of the above titles - thankfully not Kevin). Examples include Travels With My Aunt, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, and, ahem, Miss Hargreaves.

ANYWAY (how often I do use that word...) this month's theme was 'cult books'. Which is a great theme, I think, but when I started thinking about it... what on earth *is* a cult book? We had a link to what the Telegraph think are the 50 Best Cult Books, to help us out, and a lot of them were titles I'd have expected to see there - The Catcher in the Rye, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, On The Road... but then there were books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Testament of Youth that didn't seem to me to fit at all. (I'm only posting titles here, because I assume you'll know most of the authors... and because I'm lazy.)

So, what criteria made me think the former would be cult books, and the latter wouldn't? I suppose, in my head, a cult book is one that a lot of people don't like, and a small group of people love. There are a lot of books that a small group of people love (Miss Hargreaves, anyone?) but I think the wider-group-of-people-dislike-it is also an important factor. Cult books seem, in my mind, associated with geeks... Now, of course, I'm a geek too. But there are different types of geeks. I'm the type that also wears bright colours and laughs too much in company; not the type that stares at his feet and knows what all the computer acronyms stand for.

So - first things first - I'd like to know what definition you'd give to the term 'cult book'. And secondly, what do you think of the shortlist that was eventually drawn up?

  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino
  • Generation X - Douglas Coupland
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
  • Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
  • The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  • Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
  • I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith

I did want to read If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, as I was intrigued by reviews from Sakura, Simon, Polly, Stu, Kim, and doubtless others. But I thought it might be a book I'd want to read slowly, when I was definitely in the right mood for it - and I tend to end up speed reading book group choices on the night before the meeting. So I voted for a novel I love and want to re-read: I Capture the Castle. Although I can't see how it could possibly be considered a cult book...


  1. well done on four year simon,all the best stu

  2. I think a cult book is a book that inspires fervent admiration in a small group of fans, whether or not it has wider recognition. Perhaps?

    That list looks great! And very varied. I would vote for 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller', 'I Capture the Castle' and 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', honourable mention to 'Catcher in the Rye'. But 'Catch 22' would also be fascinating, I've always been meaning to read it... Hope they make for an enjoyable book group and thank-you for you 4 years worth of blogging!

  3. Congratulations on four years!

    For me, a book earns cult status by inspiring its readers in a way other books do not, by changing their way of thinking or viewing the world, and by earning their passionate (perhaps cult-like) devotion, even if only for a few years (how many Salinger fans remain so past their mid-twenties?). I don't necessarily think it has anything to do with the size of the audience but with the book's impact on them.

  4. Happy 4th anniversary, Simon! (mine's tomorrow)

    For me a cult book is one that grips you, that you talk about all the time, and that you're passionate about. It can be a best seller - or not ...

    I've read some of those on the Telegraph's list and was once passionate about several!

    Of your group's list I've read The Bell Jar (wasn't keen) and I Capture the Castle (loved it). I started If On a Winter's Night and gave up!

  5. Happy 4th anniversary! It's a milestone, because it can get a lot harder, after the first couple of years.

    I'm not sure what a cult book is - although I like the definitions given so far. I think I agree with all of them. Is that possible? Don't think I Capture the Castle is 'cult', though, unless being female (or an enlightened male!) is belonging to a cult. :-)

  6. Congratulations! What an achievement Simon, and your blog still has the joie de vivre of a new blog:) I really enjoy your posts and hope there are lots more to come.

    I LOVE Generation X and do hope you get to read it. As you said, If On A Winter's Night a Traveller is definitely not one to speed read! I still haven't read I Capture the Castle although I have it - and I was surised to see that on the list of cult books, but then it is pretty cultish amongst literary types. Have fun!

  7. Congratulations on your blog's anniversary

  8. That's an interesting shortlist! Very eclectic. As far as cult books go, hmm...Whenever I think of the word "cult," a few things immediately pop into my mind: Star Trek, David Lynch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Things of that nature. I suppose, then, that I'd agree with your comment about cult followings being associated with geeks, or at least some sort of obscure group of dedicated fans. I don't know, however, that I'd say a cult book/movie/whatever need be disliked - perhaps just unknown or ignored by the larger culture?

  9. And keep them coming! Congratulations!


    I think a cult book has to be alienating to non-readers (just like a cult is to non-followers). It probably also creates/highlights a subculture (extreme politics, sci-fic, young men sowing their wild oats, middle aged women having their midlife crises, etc). It has to be a certain size so that non-readers are conscious of that book, Because cult is a label ascribed by observers/non-followers/out-group rather than the followers/in-group, and I'd imagine the followers won't really consider their devotion to the book cult-ish. Just like with me and I Capture the Castle. (I kept the library book for months--it was a first edition albeit rebound in library leatherette binding--and only returned it to prove to myself I can do without it.)

    The list looks about right, but I disagree with Cat: half of those books have the same readers I think. I would add to the Telegraph's list Eat Pray Love. Oh and to all those American young adult pocketbook readers: Sweet Valley High and The Babysitter's Club.

  10. It's hard to believe another year has gone by since the last one, congratulations!

    I Capture the Castle doesn't seem like a cult book to me either but no matter, it's a wonderful book. Enjoy your reread!

  11. Well, I disagree with some of these definitions...don't think a book piled up by the hundreds at Costco can ever be defined as "cult." To me, a cult book is one with insanely passionate readers who foist it upon all their friends, relatives, acquaintances with a pleading must read this!...and then are met with absolute disbelief and horror that you could ever have read and loved such a book. Case in point, my love affair with Confederacy of Dunces. After insisting a friend read it, I was informed that said friend would "never look at me the same way again!" And not in a good way, mind you. Have had the same reaction to Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, by the way. Both books I only recommend now after carefully screening the person's taste....

  12. Happy blog birthday, Simon! I really enjoy your blog, and I'm glad you've been keeping it up for four years.

    As for cult books, I would go by your definition of one. I find the list that you guys have drawn up for your book club not so much in the cult book range, though. They seem to be pretty standard; I had to read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and they seem to be titles that many people like (although I heartily disliked Catcher in the Rye when I read it at age 15, just at the age when I think most people would have expected me to like it). I think of cult books as more obscure titles that many people haven't heard of but a small group are devoted to. But, even though this list doesn't seem like a list of cult books, they may be a fun list for a book group to read.

  13. Hmm, not sure how I would define a cult book, but I agree with you that they have a smaller number of readers, but the readers they do have are very ardent. I'm not sure I would classify I Capture the Castle as cult fiction, though? Some of those on your list (and the Telegraph list) strike me as having been cult fiction for their original generation, but are now a little more mainstream as succeeding generations have picked them up (e.g. Catcher in the Rye, the Fountainhead).
    Happy Blogiversary!

  14. Happy anniversary. :)

    I think a cult book would be one that inspires a cult-like following, and for me, the one that jumps up and down and waves its arms in my head when I think about "cult book" is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test! (yum)

  15. Four years - well done!

    Thanks for the House of Silence recommendation. Have devoured it in about 24 hours! Fab. Review up on my blog this week.

  16. Congratulations on your 4th anniversary!

    I tend to think of cult as being popular with a fringe group - which could include any type of book if you stop and think about it for too long!

  17. Happy birthday! I would think that a cult book wouldn't include one that is so much in the mainstream that it's mandatory reading in schools, such as Catcher in the Rye.

  18. Four years! Congratulations, Simon! What a wonderful four years it has been! :)

    I think cult books sum up the time in which they were written - usually a generation, a political movement, etc. There is something in them that strikes a powerful chord in people and that is timeless, despite its relevancy to its contemporary audience. There is also something slightly anti establishment about them, that goes against the grain and makes them a bit more daring than the classics found in the canon.

    I would say Catch 22, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby...those books are cult. I Capture the Castle not so much. Too cosy to be cult I think.

  19. Congratulations on your Blog Birthday! What an achievement - hope there are many more years of Stuck in a Book to come.

  20. Stu - thanks, Stu!

    Cat - I suppose many cult books would be too cultish for those outside the cult to have heard of it!

    Claire - thanks! I like your definition, but it does seem to me to outlaw books like Catcher in the Rye, which just seem to encourage people to be disaffected, rather than to change.

    Margaret - thank you, and happy birthday to you now! I love that we're both still going strong after four years. Like you, btw, I wasn't very keen on The Bell Jar

    Victoria - I find that the 18 month mark was trickiest, when one starts to rethink everything about blogging and get all navel-gazing! I agree that ICTC doesn't really seem cult to me... but I am looking forward to rereading nonetheless.

    Sakura - aww, your lovely comment made my day! And I hadn't actually heard of Generation X...

    neeuqfonafamai - thank you :)

    Dan - unknown, perhaps, makes more sense... but in order for me to have heard of it (!) perhaps it has to be one that is known and not widely liked (otherwise it would just be a classic, I suppose!)

    Tracy - no stoppin' me! Alienating is a great word for cult books, I agree with that. And I used to love Sweet Valley High myself!

    Darlene - flies by, doesn't it?!

    Barbara - maybe these are books that used to be cult, and then became more widespread but kept the 'cult' label? My book group is reading Confederacy of Dunces later in the year, so I await finding out which way I shall look at you ;)

    Virginia - thank you! I came to Catcher in the Rye at about 18, I think, and didn't like it at all. Holden Caulfield was so intensely annoying.

    Susan - I can't really think of any criteria under which ICTC would be cult... was it originally? I don't know.

    Julia - oo, that was on the Telegraph list. I know nothing about it at all... other than that the title puts me off! (Sorry...!)

    Jo - wow, it must be good! I look forward to reading your thoughts on House of Silence.

    Jackie - at book group we do love the slightly open-ended definitions, so we can recommend whatever we like!

    motheretc - good point!

    Rachel - aww, bless you, thanks! I like your definition - anti-establishment can still be popular, can't it. And cosy doesn't seem to fit.

    Miranda - thank you! I have no plans to stop just yet ;)

  21. Congratulations on your 4th blog anniversary. Please keep wearing bright colours and laughing too much in company - I simply spluttered when I read that.

    I liked Cat's definition: a book that inspires fervent admiration in a small group of fans ...

    It seemed to me that the list contained a lot of what I would call 'rites of passage' books: To kill a Mockingbird/Catcher in the Rye/Hitchhiker's Guide/Catch 22 -books that you read at a certain point in your life, usually when you are quite young. I agree with other comments on "I capture the Castle" it is not a cult book.

    It's such an interesting topic.

  22. Firstly Happy 4th Birthday, I love Stuck in a Book, it was one of the first book blogs that I happened upon and its delightful to see you still going from strength to strength and to have met you on several occasions and found you just as delightful as your posts suggest.

    Secondly cult novels... I hate that term as much as 'coming of age' novels. What would I call a cult novel, I think its a book like 'Valley of the Dolls' which shouldnt be loved but is, it also makes me think of science fiction - I have no idea why!

  23. Congratulations on four years of blogging


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at