Conventional reading for IF

Recently someone emailed me with the following question:

Going on the assumption that if you like to write, you must also like to read, I was wondering if you would be willing to share any books/short stories/writings — anything non-IF — that you really enjoyed or perhaps even inspired your style of story-telling.

I’ve had a pretty busy week and haven’t gotten around to answering, but I thought it might be an interesting one to throw out here, and see what other people think about IF-inspiring conventional writing.

So, a couple answers of my own:

  • Borges. His stories are often thought experiments about memory, narrative, or language, with implications that are evocative for interactive storytelling. For related but not identical reasons, Italo Calvino.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt has a special gift for choosing evocative details — little sights or sounds that capture a whole mood or carry a wealth of connotation.
  • Annie Dillard’s essays (not the fiction, which I’ve never been able to get through). Dillard writes deliciously musical prose, and describes landscape beautifully. The opening of An American Childhood remains one of my favorite passages of English prose.
  • John Crowley, mainly Little, Big, for the symbolic weight and metaphysical power it gives to simple objects; this was a non-trivial influence on Metamorphoses.
  • Plato’s Symposium. Often dry or archaic in translation, in Greek it is witty, sly, sweet, sad, sexy and beautiful; it describes vividly and presently people now millennia dead. The dialogue that is both intellectual and personal has great resonance with me.
  • Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn. Again: dialogue both intensely intellectual and intensely personal. And, I would also observe, dialogue that is not very naturalistic. I tend to write somewhat stylized dialogue for IF, and I think in this I’m influenced a bit by my diet of plays (both ancient and modern) and my sense that an interactive dialogue needs to be more compact than our rambling conversations in real life. (Not, I hasten to add, that I imagine myself on Frayn’s level, or anywhere near it. Copenhagen I consider one of the masterworks of the past century.)
  • Mote in God’s Eye. I just finished this a few weeks ago, so it’s not so much a longterm favorite as something I recently have been thinking about. What impressed me about this one was how intensely compelling I found it. Which got me thinking more about how to inspire and use the player’s curiosity as a motivating force to get him to keep playing.