(NOTE: On New Year’s Eve, my Facebook friend posted a photograph of Alan Young in the final scene of the classic George Pal adaptation of The Time Machine, and it reminded me of a newspaper column I wrote back in 2019 that was partly inspired by that same scene. A quick check indicated that I apparently never got around to sharing that column here, for whatever reason, and because Arnold reminded me of it in the first place - and because my feelings on the subject haven’t really changed in the second place - I thought I’d correct that oversight and share it now. Hope nobody minds…)

Sometime back, a fellow columnist of my acquaintance threw the following questions out to the rest of us during a gathering of those who do this for a living: “What are your three favorite books of all time? And why?”

My three favorite books? Now that, I had to admit, was a hard one. After all, I’ve read so many good books over the years that it seemed next to impossible to narrow that list down to simply three; heck, narrowing it down to 50 would have been difficult.

Some of my colleagues mentioned such high-falutin’ (and, in many cases, overrated) titles as Catcher In The Rye, Atlas Shrugged, and Mark Twain’s Letters From The Earth. One fellow (it wasn’t me, I promise, though I’ll admit I was compelled to agree that it was a good choice) mentioned Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs And Ham. And I myself – ever the instigator of endless debate amongst my friends and peers – saw fit to mention the Bible.

Apparently the fellow who posed the question in the first place had it in mind to devote a column to the subject of the favorite reading matter of professional writers. And considering the caliber of responses he received, one might think he would have had plenty of fodder for such a column. But apparently this wasn’t the sort of response he was looking for. And he let us know it, too.

“See here, you clods,” he berated. “What I want are books that are not necessarily meaningful in some deep profound way, but that you love simply for themselves. Ripping good yarns that kept you enthralled from start to finish. In other words, Tom Sawyer may qualify, but Letters From The Earth does not. Now come on, let’s hear it.”

Most of the other respondents dashed off quick retorts defending their original choices, many of them also taking time to argue that our colleague wouldn’t know a good book if it jumped up and bit him on the nose.

For my own part I still felt compelled to include the Bible; if there are any more exciting adventure stories than the Battle of Jericho or David’s defeat of Goliath, I’ve yet to come across them.

But given that our colleague was looking specifically for what might best be described as “light reading,” I (alone of all the respondents) took time to rethink the remainder of my list. Even so, it quickly became obvious that it would still be difficult to limit such a list to a mere three titles.

When it comes to “ripping good yarns,” the first author that always springs to mind is Edgar Rice Burroughs – father of Tarzan, historian of Mars and the first truly great adventure novelist of the 20th century. Tarzan alone is arguably the single most famous literary creation ever –  but the whole of Burroughs’ work practically invented entire genres of fantasy fiction and his influence can be found in everything from Star Trek and Star Wars to Gladiator and Jurassic Park.

And then there’s Louis L’Amour, the only Western writer of the past century who could have made fans forget Zane Grey. Hondo, The Daybreakers, Kilkenny... these and so many other titles present a true picture of the American West, far removed from anything you’ll ever see on old reruns of Bonanza.

But L’Amour was more than the “mere Western writer” some have labelled him as. His novel The Walking Drum, a tale set in 12th Century Turkey and the Orient, is worthy of standing alongside such classics as Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers

And L’Amour’s The Last Of The Breed is a contemporary adventure that betrays Tom Clancy as the hack some of us have always thought him to be. (My apologies to any Tom Clancy fans out there.)

And I would be most remiss indeed if I were to exclude the works of the one author I enjoyed as a young man and later got the chance to actually befriend: Philip José Farmer, author of the classic “Riverworld” and “World of Tiers” series and the creator of the Wold Newton Mythos.

Farmer has been rightfully acknowledged as having played a major role in revitalizing the SF genre during that period in the 1950s when the type of pulp fiction that had been so popular since the early days of the century had lost its appeal. Readers of the era were looking for something new, something different – and, boy, did Farmer give it to them!

He was the “New Wave” before anyone thought to call it that; he crafted stories that dealt with more adult themes than fans were used to seeing in their science fiction stories at the time, and inspired other writers to follow his example (One of the most notable of these was Robert Heinlein, whose classic Stranger In A Strange Land was dedicated to Farmer.)

Yet at the same time, Farmer probably did more to keep the spirit of those old pulp stories alive than any other writer of the past half century. A fan since childhood of Tarzan, Doc Savage and The Shadow, Farmer gave those and other characters new life through his creation of the Wold Newton Mythos, a series of books and short stories in which these and other characters co-exist and interact (and in many cases are related to one another).

I have written in the past of how Farmer had a tremendous impact on my life as a writer, starting with the publication of an essay I wrote in the 2005 anthology Myths For The Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe. And having the opportunity to actually meet Phil and his lovely wife Bette, and to spend time at their home in Peoria on more than one occasion is a memory that I will forever cherish.

Beyond Burroughs, L’Amour and Farmer, there are still so many others I could name: the entire science fiction outputs of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Lost World; The Man of Bronze, the first of 182 novels from the 1930s and’40s featuring pulp hero Doc Savage; former Monkee Michael Nesmith’s comic novel The Long Sandy Hair Of Neftoon Zamora; the works of J.R.R. Tolkien; The Sword of Shannara, the first (and best) volume in Terry Brooks’ sprawling  fantasy series; Win Scott Eckert’s The Scarlet Jaguar; and so many, many others. 

I would even include the novelization of the original Star Wars film, if for no other reason that all the background information it provides that is not in the movie itself.

A mere three books? Sorry, it can’t be done. Not by me, anyway... and, I suspect, not by you. Not if you love reading as much as I do.

Still, I can’t help but wonder...

At the end of George Pal’s incredible film version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Alan Young discovers three books missing from Rod Taylor’s bookshelf after Taylor returns to the future. Taylor’s housekeeper asks which three books are missing.

“It doesn’t matter,” Young replies. “But which three would YOU bring?”

Roughly 40 years after seeing that movie for the first time as a child, I still can’t answer that one... 

(Column copyright © 2019 by John A. Small)