The novels on this page have attained cult status—they have legions of devoted readers who importune others with their recommendation.
These novels really speak to their fans. Some are more mainstream than others, but all have left an indelible mark on their followers.
Nausea | Jean-Paul Sartre
Antoine Roquetin, a thirty-year-old man, lives in Bouville, a small seacoast town in France. He is working on a biography of an obscure political figure. Roquetin notices a subtle change in his perceptions of himself and others. He grapples with his existence, and the existence of objects and others.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being | Milan Kundera
Tomas is a surgeon and womanizer who falls in love with Tereza. He marries her but continues to see other women, one of whom is Sabina, an artist. Some of the same story is then told from Tereza’s point of view. We later meet Franz, a professor who has an affair with Sabina.
“Our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”
On the Road | Jack Kerouac
Sal Paradise, a young man working on his first novel, and Dean Moriarty, a charismatic con man who lives in the moment, travel across America seeking pleasures and rebelling against society’s standards.
Appointment in Samarra | John O’Hara
Julian English is a member of the social elite. He has too much to drink at a Christmas Eve party, leading to him throwing a drink in a man’s face, Harry Reilly. It turns out that Harry had lent many people money, putting them more on his side than Julian’s. He also used to be a suitor of Julian’s eventual wife. Julian finds that his status in high society isn’t as secure as he thought.
Atlas Shrugged | Ayn Rand
New York is in a state of decay and economic collapse. Dagny Taggart tries to keep Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad, running despite government rules that make it difficult for businesses. She has some capitalist allies fighting with her, but one by one, they have been disappearing. It seems to be related to a person named John Galt.
The Corrections | Jonathan Franzen
Alfred Lambert is the aging patriarch of the family, suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He and his wife Enid go to New York to visit their son Chip. He is trying to write, working for little money; he lost his job as a college professor because of a relationship with a student. The Lambert’s other son, Gary, is an investment banker focused on material success. He is very concerned about his mental health. Their daughter, Denise, is in line to be hired as head chef at an acquaintances restaurant.
Darkness at Noon | Arthur Koestler
Rubashov is in solitary confinement. He remembers some foreign missions he undertook in support of the USSR Communist Party. He is taken before Ivanov, the examining magistrate, and charged with planning an assassination attempt on No. 1’s life. Rubashov is urged to partially confess to ease his sentence, but he is scornful and resistant.
The Day of the Locust | Nathanael West
Tod Hackett moves to Hollywood and works as an illustrator and set designer. He is planning a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.” He lives in the same building as Faye Greener, an aspiring actress who uses her good looks to tease men and make money. Homer is a middle-aged man who falls in love with Faye. Through Faye, Tod meets a motley assortment of unscrupulous and disconnected people.
The Great Gatsby | F. Scott Fitzgerald
The narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the history of his friend Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is mysterious, has new money, and regularly throws lavish parties at his West Egg mansion.
Jane Eyre | Charlotte Bronte
As a child Jane lives with her aunt, Mrs. Reed, who treats her badly. Jane is sent away to a school for orphaned girls where conditions are uncomfortable and the food is insufficient. The authority figures are callous and unfriendly, with the exception of the head teacher, Miss Temple. When Miss Temple leaves the school, Jane looks for a job as a governess. She is hired by Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper for her new employer, Mr. Rochester. The estate is comfortable but sometimes unsettling, and Mr. Rochester is aloof.
Memoirs of a Geisha | Arthur Golden
Through interviews, Sayuri, a retired geisha, tells her life story. When she was nine, she was sent to a geisha house to work. She deals with the extensive politics of this life, and tries to pay off the expenses related to her training. She gets separated from her sister at an early age and tries to find her.
Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
Cal was born as a girl in 1960, and again as a teenage boy in 1974. Cal relates the story of her life and her genetic abnormality. She describes her experiences growing up as a girl with the emerging feeling that she isn’t fully female. She relates the history of her grandparents, whose union puts everything into motion.
The Alchemist | Paulo Coelho
Santiago is a young shepherd traveling the Spanish countryside. He has had a recurring dream about finding his fortune in an Egyptian pyramid; a gypsy woman tells him he must go to Egypt. He makes his way to Tangier. After he is robbed of all his money, he starts working at a crystal shop to save enough money to get back home.
The Picture of Dorian Gray | Oscar Wilde
Basil Hallward, an artist, has painted a portrait of a handsome young man, Dorian Gray. While putting on the finishing touches, a visitor, Lord Henry, speaks of his philosophy for living – to indulge one’s desires and impulses. Dorian is affected by his words; when he sees how beautiful he is in the portrait, he says he would give his soul to stay young.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie | Muriel Spark
Miss Brodie is a teacher at a school for girls in Scotland. She has a strong personality and influences her students, especially “the Brodie set”, a group of six girls she hand-picked to groom. She talks to them about fascism, men, art, her vacations, and tries to direct them down certain paths. Some of the faculty want her removed. The story traces the development of her pupils.
White Noise | Don Delillo
Jack Gladney teaches at a college as a Hitler specialist. His wife, Babette, teaches an adult education course in posture. Jack’s thoughts often turn to death. Something toxic is found in their children’s school, resulting in its closure. The family begins to wonder if Babette is taking medication. The family consumes tabloid news, trashy literature, and disaster reports on television. A train hauling a toxic substance derails.
Wide Sargasso Sea | Jean Rhys
Antoinette lives on her family’s plantation in isolation on a Caribbean island. The slaves have recently been emancipated, and there is tension among the population. She tries to make connections with people, but has difficulty. Her mother marries Mr. Mason, a man with money who engenders hostility from the black population. The clash builds to a breaking point. The story continues from the perspective of Antoinette’s husband.
This novel is a prequel to Jane Eyre. Antoinette is Rochester’s first wife, better known as Bertha.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? | Philip K. Dick
After a war the earth is covered with radioactive dust and many plants and animals are extinct. Lots of people have moved to Mars. Real and artificial animals are expensive. Androids are given to the Mars colonists to serve as slaves, and sometimes they rebel and flee to earth. A bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, is assigned to find and “retire” six escaped androids.
The Clan of the Cave Bear | Jean Auel
Ayla is a young orphan living in prehistoric times. She is eventually found by a woman named Iza, from the Clan. The group finds a large cave to make a new home after an earthquake destroyed their area. Ayla grows up with these new people, learning her role and how to contribute. She rebels against the traditional role for females and is punished for it.
Dune | Frank Herbert
It is far in the future and humans live on many different planets, all ruled by Great Houses who, in turn, answer to Emperor Shadam. Computers are forbidden and technology is limited. The Emperor gives control of Arrakis to the Atreides family. Arrakis is the only planet that produces geriatric spice – a highly sought commodity. Meanwhile, the Harkonnen family is scheming to wrest control from the Atreides family.
Ender’s Game | Orson Scott Card
Ender is six when he has a government monitoring device removed, a year later than usual. He is the third child in his family; usually, families are only allowed two children. Ender is recruited for Battle School. Earth has been invaded twice by the Buggers, insectoid aliens, and they were barely repelled. Ender shows promise as a military leader. He excels at the training scenarios, but he has many conflicts with the other boys.
Flowers for Algernon | Daniel Keyes
Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68. He’s going to undergo a surgical procedure to vastly increase his intelligence. He records his experience in a series of diary style “Progress Reports”. He describes how he is treated by his workmates, his interpersonal interactions, and his childhood.
The Road | Cormac McCarthy
Somewhere in the United States after an apocalypse, a father and son are travelling south to avoid the coming winter. They stop at abandoned stations and homes looking for food and supplies. There are few people left; many of those still living are violent and dangerous.
King Solomon’s Mines | H. Rider Haggard
Allan Quatermain records the events of his African treasure hunt. He sets out with a few men to find King Solomon’s mines. Along the way, they hunt, look for water, get involved in the affairs of local tribesmen, fight, and get sick.
Moby-Dick | Herman Melville
Ishmael signs on to a whaling ship, the Pequod, run by the vengeful Captain Ahab. After they set sail, Ahab stays in his cabin for a few days before showing himself to the crew. He tells them the sole purpose of their mission is to find the whale that cost him his leg on his last trip, Moby-Dick. He offers a reward to the first man who spots the whale. Ahab’s actions become increasingly unsettling.
The Name of the Rose | Umberto Eco
Adso of Melk recounts the intriguing events of a week’s time in 1327. William, a Franciscan monk, accompanied by his novice, Adso, goes to an abbey for a religious debate. The abbot asks William to look into the recent death of a young man at the abbey. Shortly after, a monk is found dead.
Rebecca | Daphne du Maurier
Maxim de Winter, recently widowed, is at an expensive resort when he meets a poor woman, the companion to a rich woman, and marries her. After the honeymoon, they go to his estate, Manderley. While she is now mistress of the house, she is inexperienced with such things and allows the servants much latitude in the daily routine. She finds that the memory of the previous Mrs. de Winter still exerts a powerful influence over everyone.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde | Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr. Jekyll is walking with his lawyer, Gabriel, and another man, Enfield, when a story is told of a man named Hyde with a highly displeasing appearance and manner, who knocked down a little girl in the street. Gabriel discovers that Jekyll has Hyde in his will, having bequeathed all his possessions to him. An associate says that Jekyll’s mind hasn’t been right for ten years. Gabriel looks into Hyde, finding him to be disgusting and evil. A witness later identifies him as the man who committed a serious crime.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland | Lewis Carroll
Alice, a young girl, is sitting by a stream when she sees a rabbit dressed in a waistcoat rushing along, muttering about being late. It jumps down a hole; Alice follows but loses track of the rabbit. She starts on a series of fantastic and absurd adventures.
The Little Prince | Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The narrator remembers when his plane crashed in the Sahara desert. He meets a boy who wants him to draw, but the narrator wants to repair his engine. This little boy, the prince from the title, is from another planet. The prince has a treasured rose on his planet that he misses. Before coming to earth, the prince visited many asteroids, each with an inhabitant who behaved oddly. The prince has an innocent perception of life, different from most adults.
Lord of the Flies | William Golding
A plane crashes on a tropical island, killing all the adults. A group of children survive and have to explore the island and find a way to live. When one boy blows a conch shell, they all gather to figure out what they will do and what roles they will play.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Robert Pirsig
The unnamed narrator is riding his motorcycle from Minnesota to California with his son and two friends. He philosophizes about classicism and romanticism and relates motorcycle maintenance to an individual’s spiritual health. His son, Chris, has been diagnosed with a possible symptom of mental illness. The narrator hints that he is inhabited by an alternate personality, explaining what it is and that it might be reemerging.
The Razor’s Edge | W. Somerset Maugham
Larry served in WWI as an aviator. His best friend was killed saving Larry’s life. After the war, he has no ambition to succeed professionally. He loafs in Paris, reading and learning, which eventually costs him his engagement to Isabel. She marries a rich man, Gray Maturin. Larry pursues enlightenment thru spirituality, while the Maturin’s focus on money.
Steppenwolf | Hermann Hesse
When Harry Haller abruptly leaves his rented room, the narrator finds a manuscript Haller wrote about himself. It records his distaste for life – its mediocrity, its conventions and comforts. When he’s out walking one evening, he is handed a book by a stranger that is about Haller’s personality and attitude. It claims he has a dual nature–man and wolf. Haller considers suicide to escape his unsatisfying life.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter | Carson McCullers
It’s the 1930s in a small Southern town. John Singer, a deaf mute, is an important presence in the life of the other main characters. Biff runs a cafe, has a distant relationship with his wife, and says that he like freaks. Jake is educated and a fighter for equality, but he is drunk a lot, which undermines his credibility. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who looks after her brothers and loves music. Dr. Copeland is a black man educated in the North, isolated and keenly aware of the racism around him. Their lives intertwine for a while, but mostly in a superficial way.
Herzog | Saul Bellow
Moses Herzog is at his country house writing letters to people–family; friends; and historical figures, living and dead–because he’s struggling with mental instability. He was a teacher and scholar before his marriage went bad. He eventually gets news that his daughter needs him, so he goes to a lawyer, Simkin, for advice on how to get custody of her.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | Ken Kesey
Chief Bromben tells the story of a few weeks from his insane asylum. Randle McMurphy is admitted to the asylum, feigning insanity to avoid a work camp. Nurse Ratched runs the institution strictly, exerting control over all the residents. McMurphy proves to be a disruptive influence and challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority.
Slaughterhouse Five | Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Billy Pilgrim is a chaplain’s assistant in World War II who doesn’t like fighting. He is captured by the Germans in his first battle. It is at this point that he becomes “unstuck” in time. He is transported to various points in his life, including the war, an alien abduction, and a plane crash, among many others.
The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield, sixteen, gets expelled from his New York private school for not applying himself. He gets into a fight in his dorm over a girl. He leaves school to stay in a hotel for a while before his parents will expect him home. He meets an assortment of unusual people. Holden feels alienated and wants to protect children form losing their innocence.