No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting. She will not want new fashions nor regret the loss of expensive diversions or variety of company if she can be amused with an author in her closet. - Lady Mary Montagu
Yesterday I told you about my favorite books, and today I’d like to tell you about my favorite authors. There’s less overlap than you might think; of these ten authors, only half have a book among my favorites (which also means eight of my favorites were written by people who aren’t on my top authors list). The reason for this is that five of the writers below have a consistently high average quality in my opinion, but just didn’t produce any one book I can truly claim as a favorite; conversely, eight of the favorite books were produced by writers whose other output doesn’t interest me remotely as much (you’ll see a similar dichotomy of artists and albums in “My Favorite Things (Part Two)”). After the top ten, I’m also going to share a “second string” whose work I enjoy very much but just don’t quite make it all the way up for one reason or another. Each list is arranged alphabetically.
1) Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
If you think I’m a prolific writer for having typed out almost 700 essays for this blog, consider that Asimov wrote over 500 full-length books and tens of thousands of letters. Though many of those were science fiction and a few fantasy, mystery and humor, a large fraction of his oeuvre was nonfiction; he wrote books on nearly every branch of science and even some on literature, mythology, art and other subjects, and on top of it all edited collections of others’ work…and most of it was pretty damned good.
2) Ray Bradbury (born 1920)
Bradbury’s earliest work was a unique blend of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and though over time the horror elements began to fade his style retained the uniquely poetic, lyrical quality that brands it as his. I love his earliest work best, but there’s very little he wrote before 1980 that I don’t like. His second book, The Illustrated Man, is one of my 13 favorites; “The Small Assassin” from his first book (Dark Carnival) is on my list of the ten scariest short stories (see this coming Monday’s column), and my own story “Penelope” is a tribute to The Martian Chronicles.
3) Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)
Burroughs wrote over 70 books between 1912 and his death, and I’ve read every one (except for a recent collection of previously-unpublished short tales I haven’t bought yet). Most of his work is adventure fantasy, often taking place on other worlds or exotic parts of our own; though his plots vary very little, one reads him for the descriptions of strange places, stranger creatures and the triumph of good over evil. In Burroughs, it has been said, all good men are strong and brave and all good women beautiful and wise, and though that’s a slight exaggeration it isn’t far off the mark. His Martian tales (taken together) appear on yesterday’s list of favorite books, my essay “The Girls from Tarzana” is about prostitutes in his works, and his ideas subtly suffuse my own conceptions of what a fantasy setting should be like.
4) Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
The pen name of Charles Dodgson, who in ordinary life was a mathematician; his boundless imagination and passion for nonsense combined with his skill at logic and mathematics to produce what many including myself consider to be the finest literature of the absurd ever written. I’ve loved the Alice books since I was seven; as I said yesterday, taken together they constitute my favorite book of all time, and I’m also fond of most of his other work such as “The Hunting of the Snark”.
5) Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)
Along with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein is considered one of the founders of the science fiction genre as we know it. Jeff introduced me to his juvenile novels when I was about 9 or 10, and they’re still my favorites of all his works except for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which may be the greatest political novel of all time. Once he was established he dared to embed libertarian philosophy, free love, discussions of humanist ethics and other such material in his work, and though some feminists have moronically insisted that he is a “sexist” for denying “social construction of gender”, he in fact repeatedly stated throughout his body of work that women were superior to men in nearly every important way. The same critics often call his female characters “unrealistic”, which I find hilarious because I’ve been compared to them on many occasions.
6) H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
In his life he was largely unknown outside of the readership of what in those days was called “weird fiction”, but he influenced so many horror writers who became famous in their own right (including Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and Stephen King) that his fame began to grow in the late ‘60s and he’s now practically a household word. Lovecraft was the first important writer to use science fictional motifs rather than fantasy ones (i.e. his horrors are aliens rather than demons or spirits), which makes him the founder of practically the entire modern horror genre (including, by descent, vampire stories in which the condition is biological rather than the result of a curse). I’ve read his entire body of published work, which I can only say of two other writers on this list.
7) Arthur Machen (1863-1947)
Because he was one of Lovecraft’s influences, many people come to Machen via Lovecraft, but for me the two were unrelated discoveries: I read “The Novel of the White Powder” in a horror collection when I was about 11, and was hooked. If you are one of those people who need everything explained and tied up neatly in a horror story, do not read Machen because he is the absolute master of things left unsaid; he realized (as so few do nowadays) that the terrors a reader’s mind can conjure up with expert prodding are far worse than anything he could put on the page.
8) Larry Niven (born 1938)
Niven is a science fiction writer who slowly grew on me; like Heinlein and Burroughs he’s usually considered a “man’s author” and since Jeff never “assigned” me any of his books to read I discovered him via short stories in collections, then picked up Ringworld and The Mote in God’s Eye during that awful year of 1995 when I was trying to fill every waking moment with something other than my troubles. There’s still a lot of his work I haven’t read, but his name on a story is a sure sign I’ll enjoy it.
9) Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)
I can’t tell you how old I was when I first read Poe, nor which was the first story I read, except to say that by the time I memorized “Eldorado” in second grade I already knew his name. All through the ‘70s I read every story of his I could find, and encountered adaptations of others on film, in horror comics and even read aloud on record albums. The only two “complete works” on yesterday’s favorite books list are his and Lovecraft’s, and he bears the distinction of being the only author in today’s column whose work (“The Fall of the House of Usher”) I actually taught in a class.
10) J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
Tolkien is one of the rare authors whose works do not daunt me with their length; the poetry of his language sucks me right back in as soon as I pick up the book again. I was introduced to him when I was 12, and like Burroughs he shaped my own concepts of fantasy forever after. The Silmarillion is the only one of his posthumous publications I’ve read, but his place on this list is secure even without it.
1) Ambrose Bierce (1942-1913?) While not generally known as a horror writer, Bierce penned a number of very fine examples of the genre, often laced with sardonic humor.
2) Fredric Brown (1906-1972) Absolute master of the short-short story, a form which includes most of my own work. Here’s his shortest one: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…“
3) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) Though I don’t care for the historical novels which he considered his more important work, I absolutely love Sherlock Holmes and am fond of the first two Professor Challenger novels.
4) Gardner Fox (1911-1986) One of the most prolific, inventive and imaginative comic-book writers of all time, especially in the superhero and sci-fi genres. Here’s a lovely example of his work, “Earth Victory – By a Hair!” from the January 1961 issue of Strange Adventures.
6) Tanith Lee (born 1947) She has written fantasy, horror and science fiction, much of it highly erotic, poetic, unconventional and dark. The first of her work I read was “The Secret Books of Paradys”, and they’re still my favorites.
7) Richard Matheson (born 1926) Though he’s written many novels and short stories I love Matheson best for his movie scripts and teleplays, including many of the best Twilight Zone episodes and a number of Roger Corman’s “Poe” movies starring Vincent Price.
8) A.A. Milne (1882-1956) I do love the Pooh books, but it’s really his poetry I like best; I know a number of them (including “Disobedience”, “Buckingham Palace” and “The King’s Breakfast”) by heart.
9) Carl Sagan (1934-1996) My favorite science writer of all time; I’m especially fond of Cosmos (both the book and the TV series), but find all his articles and books both informative and entertaining to a degree unmatched by anyone other than Asimov.
10) H.G. Wells (1866-1946) Though as you might expect I prefer his short stories to his novels, the sheer brilliance of longer works like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds earn him a place on this list.
One Year Ago Today
“…And Don’t Forget To Wash Behind Your Ears” is a discussion of one of the most egregious examples of nanny-state overreach imaginable: government-issued dating advice.