Zompist recommends

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Some books I've found inspiring, helpful, or amusing.

Fiction

My general advice for writing fantasy is not to read much fantasy; otherwise you'll just be writing second-hand imitations. Read about the real world even if you intend to leave it behind. Nonetheless, here's some fantasies I admire.

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere 
A man tries to help a bleeding girl, and is rewarding by losing everything meaningful to him; two of the funniest yet creepiest killers you'll ever meet; a dashing rogue named Carabas; strange characters named after stops on the London Underground... Gaiman comes up with brilliant ideas and makes them work. It's completely unlike Tolkien, and there isn't a king or dragon in sight, and yet it's classic fantasy: an ordinary person gets caught up in a world he never suspected and can't quite figure out. It's also a great example of when not to indulge your world-building: the book is all the better for not explaining exactly how its magic works.
Mary Gentle, Rats and Gargoyles 
A strange tale of a polytheistic world where the gods are real-- apparently based on medieval Platonism. What I chiefly liked here was the constant attention to sensual detail. One character, for instance, has a tail; in most fantasies this would be mentioned and forgotten... even in Tolkien, how much do the hobbits' hairy feet affect the story? But Gentle never forgets to mention what the character is doing with her tail. This is the difference between world-building and bringing a world alive. (A warning, though: I've tried other books of hers and didn't care for them.)
Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates 
Just spectacular. It's got time travel, malevolent Egyptian sorcerors, a mind-changer, unscrupulous rich guys, evil clowns, and a dirty, convincing view of 1820s London. Again, the fantasy works because it's so deeply rooted in realism.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 
This approximates what Jane Austen might have written if she wrote fantasy. If that sounds fascinating, you’ll probably like it; if it sounds like it’d bore the pants off you, it probably will. What I admire about it is its immersiveness; everything, from the language used to the extensive (and drily amusing) footnotes, contributes to the particular atmosphere.
Kingsley Amis, The Alteration 
It’s usually deplorable when ‘mainstream’ writers do sf; but not this time. This is probably the best alternative-history novel I’ve ever read— a fully imagined world in which Protestantism never happened, but was co-opted instead by the Church. Usually such things are interesting but somewhat dry and shallow, but Amis makes it come vividly to life.
Afred Bester, The Demolished Man 
The best sf novel ever, if you don’t mind my saying so. Most fans seem to prefer The Stars My Destination, which I don’t sneeze at; but the characters here are not so grotesque. The sf premise is simple enough— a world in which ESP is routine— but the depth and insight of the world-building are spectacular— it’s one of the few sf worlds that seem as complex and quirky as our own. And yet this is never allowed to overshadow the characters and the plot (which is a murder mystery with a twist: thanks to the ESP, the detective knows the murderer from the start, but has to figure out the method).

How worlds work

Works which give an overview of how our world has developed.

Charles C. Mann, 1491 
It turns out that everything you thought you knew about the Americas before Columbus was wrong. They weren’t ignorant savages; they weren’t noble savages either. Especially recommended for conworlders, since the Americas are as close as we get to seeing another planet.
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel 
Why do some societies grow and take over the world, and others don’t? A century ago the usual answer was racialist: white Europeans are just better. That's just know-nothingism; but till recently it was hard to come up with a better explanation. Diamond has done so, quite convincingly, and using principles you can rip off for your conworld. His more recent Collapse is good reading too.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations 
A book which may completely upend your view of history; it certainly did mine. I’ve explained why elsewhere.
Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches 
A quick ride through history, showing how seemingly absurd cultural practices (e.g. Hindu cow love; Jewish/Muslim pig hatred; the European witch frenzy; the nature of warfare) are illuminated by ecology.
Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language 
A strange book, but a classic. Alexander is an architect, and he has isolated a repertoire of patterns that make for liveable, humane cities and buildings— what he calls “the timeless way of building”. Lots of thought-provoking ideas.
Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers 
A painstaking analysis of the major wars of the last half-milennium, relating each to the economies of the states involved. The thesis is simple enough— the powers with the greater resources win— but you need to read it all to cut through all the romantic claptrap which makes us think other factors are decisive.
Neil Comins, What if the moon didn't exist? 
An astronomer's exploration of what would happen under various physical scenarios: no moon, a smaller earth, a bigger sun, etc. Much better than just guessing!

Case studies

Again, if you want great ideas for fantasy, pick up a random history book. The books here are not must-reads; they’re just good books, and contributed in one way or another to Almea.

Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages 
If you think the industrial revolution began in England in the 1700s, think again.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 
A basic, non-shrill explanation of what the world looks like from a female perspective. Why were almost all of the great writers and artists men? Woolf tells you why.
Mark Twain, Roughing It 
What the American frontier was like.
Noel Perrin, Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 
Japan was introduced to the gun, tried it out, quickly learned how to mass-produce it... and then abandoned the idea and went back to swords. A very useful counterpoint to the notion that new technology should and will inevitably get used.
Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe 
I’ve read a number of Lewis’s enormously well-informed books on the Middle East, but this one is perhaps the most illuminating.
Adrian Goldsworthy, The Punic Wars 
A good account of the wars between Rome and Carthage, and why Rome won when, by contemporary standards of warfare, it was completely beaten. I used a lot of this for the Count of Years.
Bernard Rudofsky, The Unfashionable Human Body 
On fashion’s war with the human body.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia 
Orwell is best known for his anti-Soviet fiction, but he was also a formidable reporter and social critic. Also good: his reporting on World War II.
Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin 
Even our own past is a foreign country; Franklin is one of the most accessible inhabitants. Franklin virtually invents the perfect American hero here: the clever rogue who uses his bag of tricks for good.
Ronald P. Dore, Shinohata: A portrait of a Japanese village 
Interesting portrait of a modern Japanese village.
Alma Guillermoprieto, Samba 
What it’s like to spend a year in the favelas of Rio, preparing to enter the yearly samba contest.
Jane Walmsley, Brit-think, Ameri-think 
One of the inspirations for those culture tests on my site. A very amusing look at how two cultures that seem quite close together actually aren’t.
John Griffin, Black Like Me 
Another foreign country no one visits any more: The American South of the 1950s. Griffin finds out what it was like by a simple, cheeky device: he disguises himself as a black man, and sees how whites treat him.
John King Fairbanks, The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985 
A good overview of Chinese history.
Robert Graves, I, Claudius 
The Roman Empire was a lot weirder than we usually remember.
C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image 
A detailed explication of the medieval worldview; a good corrective to the romantic ideas we get from stories and video games. For instance, few cultures have been as bookish as medieval Europe.

Linguistics

Again, these are by no means the only books worth reading, but they’re some of the best I’ve found.

J.C. Catford, A Practical Introduction to Phonetics 
If you buy only one linguistics book, make it this one. Phonetics is the basic building block of linguistics (and conlanging).
Theodora Bynon, Historical Linguistics 
My favorite intro to this subject (essential if you want to derive your own languages from a proto-language). R.L. Trask’s book of the same name is excellent as well, however.
Sarah Grey Thomason & Terrence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics 
Technical, but an essential overview of the ways languages affect each other; most useful for exploding the numerous myths on this subject. (E.g.: English is not an extreme example of language contact; it’s not a creole; not many things are creoles, in fact, except for creoles.)
John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy 
The Chinese writing system has fascinated Westerners for years— and generated an immense load of bullshit. DeFrancis somewhat crabbily sorts out truth from nonsense.
James McCawley, The Syntactic Phenomena of English 
My standard answer to why syntax needs more than one page in your conlang’s grammar. In 800 pages, McCawley covers some of the highlights of the study of syntax. I also like McCawley’s approach to generative linguistics better than anyone else’s (and that especially means Chomsky). He explains the attractions of the generative approach without every getting doctrinaire. If you don’t agree with everything he says— well, you’re not supposed to; he’ll also give you a hint of how syntactic controversies are discussed.
Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code 
How it was realized that those rather ugly little squoggles were a real live language.
Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems 
An excellent survey of different writing systems.
George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things 
A basic text of what’s become cognitive linguistics. Why simple theories of categories are terribly and misleadingly wrong.
Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson, Relevance: Communication and Cognition 
Pretty technical, but useful for its full-bore attack on the conduit theory of meaning. Language isn’t a code; there is no plaintext in your head that gets speechified and decoded in the listener’s head; you can’t neatly isolate the implications of an utterance.
C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words 
Sometimes you learn more from one very detailed case-study than from a wide-scale overview. This book traces a handful of words from their classical origins into modern English; what it should teach conlangers is how thoroughly inadequate their semantic shifts are.
Michael Tomasello, Constructing a Language 
No, not what it sounds like; it's a detailed look at how children learn language. Very dry, but a thorough demolition of Chomsky's latest parameters-based models. The evidence is that children pick up constructions one by one, only generalizing between them slowly and late.