The best cult books to buy for any uber-hip, hard to impress, bookworms you might know (even if it’s just yourself)

Jon Crabb Author Of Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut
By Jon Crabb

Who am I?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with cultural curiosities, extraordinary eccentrics, secret societies, decadent dandies, rebels, devils, and anything weird and wonderful. I parlayed a love of Word and Image into a career in the arts and worked for places including Tate, Thames & Hudson and the British Library. But to be honest with you, that was just a ruse so I could spend more time delving through interesting books and prints. Some people see the world a little differently; I think we all benefit by spending a bit of time in the company of their art. "It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through."


I wrote...

Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut

By Jon Crabb,

Book cover of Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut

What is my book about?

While working in the British Library’s publishing department, I spent happy hours pondering "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore." At some point, I stumbled on their collection of Early Modern ballads and pamphlets. I was entranced by the crude, bizarre, and often hilarious woodcuts that illustrated them, and set about collecting the most striking and amusing examples. 

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an explosion of cheap printed materials, made possible by the advent of woodblock printing and mass-produced paper. Unlike expensively bound books, these broadsides were not produced for the intellectual elite, but pasted on walls and distributed among the masses. They uniquely capture the obsessions of the time; namely monsters, witches, alcohol, and scandal.

The books I picked & why

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Lanark: A Life in Four Books

By Alasdair Gray,

Book cover of Lanark: A Life in Four Books

Why this book?

Lanark is one of those books that you can read at different points in your life and find something completely new. There are two intertwined narratives: a coming of age tale about a young artist growing up in Glasgow; and a genre-bending depiction of a lifetime in the fictional city of Unthank. These two stories pull you across time and space, taking in Reichian psychology, social commentary, and gnostic illuminism along the way. It’s bewildering in its scope, but drags you steadily in. I studied History of Art at Glasgow University (and briefly met Gray in the city), but even if you’ve never heard of Glasgow, there is so much here to enjoy. It’s quite possible that you’ll never be the same again after reading it.


Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft

By Dale Pendell,

Book cover of Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft

Why this book?

This is the first volume of a trilogy on psychoactive plants and synthetic drugs. While this is a well-worn path, I’ve never seen it traversed quite like this. Pendell weaves together science, alchemy, illustrations, poetry, and quotations to reveal the spirit behind each molecule he discusses. The sections on stimulants are the longest and most enthusiastic, while the hallucinogens are given the most whimsical prose. It’s a fascinating treatment of a fascinating subject. Some will hate it, but the right person will love it.


The Hearing Trumpet

By Leonora Carrington,

Book cover of The Hearing Trumpet

Why this book?

Leonora Carrington is one of those amazing, other-worldly, individuals whose life story you can’t quite believe. After an aristocratic upbringing in England, she joined the surrealists in Paris, ran off with Max Ernst, was later sectioned, escaped an asylum, studied Kabbalah, and helped found the women’s liberation movement in Mexico. She is mostly known for her painting but does not receive the recognition she deserves. Her novel The Hearing Trumpet starts off slightly surreal, then takes a hard left turn and becomes increasingly more surreal. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it, but it’s a beguiling and funny meditation on gender, age, and death. If you don’t know her, this book would be a wonderful intro to her work.


William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur'an

By Michael Muhammad Knight,

Book cover of William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur'an

Why this book?

How can you have a list of cult books without William Burroughs? I nearly put some Burroughs on this list, but as this is for hard-to-impress fans of cult books, you’ve probably already read him. I was also tempted to include Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, but again, you’ve probably already read him (or object to him on reputation alone). Michael Muhammad Knight takes on both these figures while attempting to write the Great American Queer Islamo-Futurist Novel. Contains hip-hop history, gay fiction, and sacrilege – what’s not to like? A blasphemous blend of autobiography and literary experimentation.


XX

By Rian Hughes,

Book cover of XX

Why this book?

A hugely ambitious mix of text and graphic design, in which typography is used in bold and disarming ways. It is also a genuinely compelling sci-fi novel about very, very, big ideas. Filled with meta-narratives, in-jokes, artistic references, and mixed media, it’s an interesting alternative to that other oft-cited cult classic House of Leaves. As someone who has worked as both designer and editor, I was blown away by Hughes’s ability to combine a good story with such avant-garde design. The themes communicated will give you much to contemplate – or ramble on about to any friends you successfully corner. A staggering achievement destined to be a future cult classic.


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