McKinnon, Gina. 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide.

NY: Sterling, 2010.

I remember, years ago, being involved in an extended, entirely friendly, but nevertheless intense argument with several friends, fellow science fiction fans, about which were the “best” novels in that field. Not the most literary, nor even the best-written (which might have excluded Heinlein entirely), but the essential books that no one who considered himself a fan could have NOT read. My top choice was (probably still is) Stranger in a Strange Land.

Also Ringworld. A few years later and I would have included Snow Crash. We didn’t use the word, but what we were talking about is what McKinnon calls “cult” books. And she defines those as books that have a “peculiar ability to speak to the reader.” This goes beyond liking or loving a book into the realm of near-manic devotion. The books you insist your friends have GOT to read. The books you probably have several copies of. And usually, they’re books you discovered as a teenager or young adult because cult books almost always have youth appeal. These are the books that will stay with you forever. We know what we’re talking about now, right? Catcher in the Rye. A Clockwork Orange. 1984. Atlas Shrugged. Lord of the Flies. The Lord of the Rings. Fahrenheit 451. On the Road. Maus. More recently, Trainspotting and Lonesome Dove, though I think it takes a while for a book to do its work and be recognized as a cult classic. (There are cult books, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that gave rise to equally cult films, but the author doesn’t stray into that other huge subject.)

There are ten chapters here, organized around genres or themes, and each starts with the Top Ten Classics in that category, followed by the forty Best of the Rest. And there are amazingly few selections whose inclusion I would disagree with, not did I find any of my own nominations for cult status that were omitted — with the exception of Cryptonomicon (of which I own two copies). I also was pleased to find a number of graphic novels included: Watchmen has a cult following by anyone’s definition. Each listing includes a brief plot summary and a short review to orient you. If you’re any kind of a reader at all, you will find quite a few titles here (I certainly did) that you read earlier in your life and which you are likely to decide you ought to go and read again. You’ll find others you were aware of but never read. And still others (one hopes not too many) that you’ve honestly never heard of. If you’re of the younger literary generation, you should come away with a good long list of books you simply must read. If, again like me, you’ve been reading almost continually for more than half a century, the list may not be much shorter. What can I say? You should buy this book, or least borrow it from the library, and begin making notes. You have a lot of reading — and re-reading — to do.

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