Someone was asking me the other day how to get started reading sword & sorcery. I'd been meaning to put up a recommended reading list, so now's the time. This isn't an all-inclusive list, but something meant to give a reader a good grounding in the genre. I'm also working on a table of contents for a Sword & Sorcery Anthology which would also serve as a good introduction, but let's say that you, as the reader, have time to read entire books. The good thing is, most of the stuff I'm going to suggest is actually in print, so you won't have to haunt Ebay and Amazon or your local used bookstore too much. Anyway, let's jump right in.
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey 2003)
Anybody who wants to be an authority on S&S has to read Robert E. Howard. He's the founder of the genre as well as being a really good writer. I would suggest all three of the Del Rey Conan volumes, but by reading the first one you'll get a good feel for Conan and Howard. REH's other creations, Kull and Solomon Kane have their boosters, and I certainly recommend the Del Rey volumes of these as well, but for a short list, I'm putting Conan at the top. Available at bookstores, comic book shops, and Amazon.
Black God's Kiss (Planet Stories 2007)
This book collects all of C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories. Jirel is the first lady of sword and sorcery and the original red-haired she devil. Beautiful, haunting writing. Available at bookstores, comic book shops, and from Amazon.
Swords Against Death (Dark Horse Books 2007)
The second book in the collected tales of Fritz Leiber's pair of S&S heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. To my mind this may be the best of the collections. It has several really good short stories such as The Jewels in the Forest and The Howling Tower. Leiber was the next major S&S author after Howard, and he's very important to the history of the genre. Dark, funny, and exciting tales. In print and available at bookstores, comic shops, and Amazon.
Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Del Rey 2008)
This book collects the earliest stories of Michael Moorcock's anti-Conan Elric of Melnibone. More pulpish and raw than the series later became, and very fun to read. This one isn't only available at bookstores, comic shops, and Amazon but also for E-Readers. S&S hits the cutting edge.
Okay, those are the easy ones. And if you stopped there, you'd still be in good shape regarding old school sword & sorcery, however there are a couple of other authors I think very important.
The first is Karl Edward Wagner, whose hero-villain Kane (Karl didn't care for the term anti-hero) is another original and influential S&S character. Sadly all of Wagner's work is currently out of print and usually pretty expensive to come by. A few years ago Nightshade books put out two hardback volumes collecting all the Kane stories and novels. Both of these books go these days for between $75 and $250 bucks each, depending on condition. If you keep a close eye on Ebay, ABEbooks, etc though, you might get lucky and find a copy cheaper.
Even the old Warner paperbacks can be pretty steep, but looking at Amazon today I see most of them available in the 20 buck range. The collections Death Angel's Shadow and Night Winds would be my recommendations since I think KEW's short stories and novellas superior to his novels, but that's just me. Any Kane is worth reading.
The next author is Charles R. Saunders, creator of the first major black Sword & Sorcery hero, Imaro. Great blood and thunder tales set in a fantasy version of ancient Africa. Originally published in three DAW paperbacks in the 1980s, some of the Imaro stories were recently reprinted by Nightshade books. Those two volumes, Imaro and Imaro 2:The Quest for Cush, are available from Amazon. More recently Saunders has been self publishing Imaro books through Lulu. Well worth your time.
That's the short list. As I mentioned, I'm trying to put together contents for an imaginary anthology of S&S, which would cover more authors and discuss the history of the genre. But for now, off you go to the bookstore or Internet. Get to reading!