Out on the Curb, by Neal Barrett, Jr.

The article below was written by Neal Barrett, Jr. for publication on his original official web site, NealBarrett.com (without the "Jr"), which went offline circa 2008. From the Wayback Machine, it appears this article first appeared on that site circa 2005-2006. The copyright belongs to Neal Barrett, Jr. himself, who in 2011 granted permission to republish it here.

Since I first began [the original NealBarrett.com] site, I have had a lot of email from readers, and many of them have asked me to name my favorite books and writers. I appreciate all the mail I receive, and if someone goes to the trouble to write me, I return the courtesy and write them back.

I am not certain why a writerís list is of any more merit than that of a doctor or a vinyl siding salesman. Still, I do know a vast array of writers, and Iíve learned a couple of interesting things about their reading habits.

Here are my personal conclusions, and you can take them for what they are worth:

I believe some of the best writers are eclectic in their reading habits...and some of the worst read absolutely nothing but the books in their own field.

Okay, you can put this down as generalizing, but that’s the way I see it, notable exceptions aside. The obvious point here is that snails get a very narrow view of the universe, while birds see a great deal more. And, the more you perceive as a writer, the better you can reflect that knowledge in your work.

Am I a good writer? Well, yeah, I think I am, and, happily, some readers do too. You, of course, as a wise, discerning reader of fine literature, are entitled to your opinion.

At any rate, I am, if anything, eclectic, so I get points for that. Here’s a partial list of who and what I like. Some of these titles appeared on a site a few years ago, and I’ve tried to broaden them a bit.

I had a good start in the reading game. My parents read a lot. We always had Argosy, Bluebook, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty and other magazines that have long since vanished into history. My mother checked out stacks of books from what, at the time, was called a “lending library.” This gave me a chance, at a very early age, to read a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to read. Dad knew Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Burroughs sent him every new book as it came out. I read all the Tarzan tales, plus Thuvia, Maid of Mars, At the Earth’s Core and all the rest. And, if this doesn’t make you groan, it should: I had all of these books: Signed. And, yeah, they were all lost when my parents moved in the fifties. I expect I had the first Superman and Batman, too, but, who knew?

In 1943 I found The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, and the first story I read was “Microcosmic God,” by Theodore Sturgeon. I got to meet him at a convention, years later. In l945 I picked up a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H.P. Lovecraft and scared hell out of myself. That same year I discovered Astounding Science Fiction, the February issue, featuring “The Piper’s Son” by Lewis Padgett. I still have that issue, and the May issue featuring “First Contact” by Murray Leinster. Of course, by this time I was totally hooked.

I sold my first sf stories in l959---but that doesn’t mean this is the only genre I read at a fairly early age: Here’s a sample:

“Winter Quarters” by Alfred Duggan

“The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari

“The Parthian” by Vic Hurley (Near the top of my all-time list)

Everything by Mickey Spillane

Every book about James Bond

Everything else...

Historical novels (and books on history) have always been my favorites. Just a few of the writers in these fields are James Clavel, Cecilia Holland, Bartle Bull, John Biggins, Jack Whyte, Michael Shaara, Jeff Sharra, C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell, Edward Rutherfurd, Larry McMurtry, Alexander Kent, Alexander Fullerton, Winston Churchill, Robert Sproat, Julius Caesar.

I like thrillers and mystery/suspense: Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Stephen Hunter, John D. MacDonald, John LeCarre, to name a few.

I could go on and on and your list won’t be anything like mine---nor should it be. I’ll finish off here by naming my top favorite books and authors, not in any particular order.

John Steinbeck Charles Dickens
Charles Portis Mark Twain
Thomas McGuane Thomas McGuane
Jim Harrison Charles Willeford

Best SF writer ever: Cordwainer Smith

Best one still living: Terry Bisson

Other great sf writers:

Kim Stanley Robinson
Theodore Sturgeon
H.G. Wells
Jules Verne
Alfred Bester
Philip K. Dick
Ray Bradbury
Robert Heinlein
Joe Haldeman

Best SF/Fantasy books I’ve read in years: Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville.

Three of my favorite writers happen to be friends. Sorry, that’s the way it is. I would not name them here if that’s all they were, I simply would say nothing about them.

William Browning Spencer
Joe R. Lansdale
Terry Bisson (“Bears Discover Fire” is the best SF collection ever)

Okay, that’s a start on an impossibly long list, but I hope it satisfies some of the people who have asked me for it. Certainly, I have left out dozens, hundreds of writers, and included some you, personally don’t like. But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Just Remember: STAY ECLECTIC. And keep in touch...

The original essay "Out on the Curb" copyright 2007 by Neal Barrett Jr. Used with permission.

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