I may have taken on a bit much with the idea of trying to create an essential fantasy reading list. There are a lot of books to consider, and everyone has a different idea of what counts as "essential." There are also a lot of different opinions about what constitutes "fantasy." My main aim was to come up with the books/authors that I, as a fantasy novelist, should have some familiarity with so I don't feel stupid on con panels, but I do also think it's important to know the "classics" of what came before so you can build on it or depart from it, and better to know the core source than to know the copy of the homage to the source.
Fantasy is an interesting genre because it's both incredibly ancient and relatively new. On the one hand, you could argue that it's prehistoric because the ancient myths and legends passed down through oral tradition had a lot of the elements that we consider the hallmarks of fantasy today. They're often about supernaturally gifted heroes going up against supernaturally gifted bad guys. On the other hand, I've read somewhere that "fantasy" as a distinct publishing category didn't really exist until the late 60s when The Lord of the Rings got reissued in the United States in mass market paperback and set off a wave of copycats of that particular kind of book -- the quasi-medieval setting, questing parties made up of representatives from various races, Great Evil that must be stopped by obtaining or destroying some magical gizmo, the wise wizard mentor, and a build-up to a great battle or all-out war. There were books that we now consider "fantasy" published before that, but the publishing category didn't really exist. A lot of the fantasy fiction before that seemed to get classified as "children's literature" -- the Oz books, the Narnia books, the Prydain books, etc., and the classic fantasy story does lend itself to that because the heroes are quite often fairly young. Otherwise, it seems to have been lumped in with science fiction, which it still is to a large extent in most stores, though they may make distinctions on the book spines. Hmm, how did they classify the Robert E. Howard stuff at the time it was first published? Now I'm starting to wonder about whatever article I read that made the LOTR argument, and it's possible that it was Ballantine propaganda because they like to claim they invented the modern fantasy novel.
At any rate, do you then make your fantasy literary canon go back to Beowolf and include the Grimms' Fairy Tales, or do you start with the publishing category and the books that were specifically written and published under the "fantasy" banner? I suppose it depends on whether you're trying to get as close as possible to source material in understanding the genre so you can be more original and less of a coattail rider or whether you're trying to understand the publishing category and need to sound like you know what's going on in the industry on con panels.
I think my reading has tended to focus on the former, and I'm missing out on the latter, especially a lot of the first-wave fantasy that came in the early days of the publishing category. To be honest, the LOTR type book really isn't my cup of tea. My reading taste runs to more intimate than epic. I'd rather read about a handful of people saving each other than about a cast of thousands saving the world. I suppose you could also call a lot of my fantasy taste "girly," in that I like reading about relationships, "domestic" life (how does magic affect day-to-day stuff), scholarship/learning, the arts, etc., more than I like big, epic battle scenes, blood and gore, violence, and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of good fight scenes, but that's usually something that's more interesting to me in a movie than in a book.
I'm not entirely sure how I'd deal with urban fantasy in an "essential reading" list because it's so new as a publishing category and currently so glutted. I'd probably stick with the books that pre-date the category, like War for the Oaks, Neverwhere, American Gods and a lot of Charles de Lint. I suspect the Dresden Files series may endure. I'm not sure how many of the half-vampire/half-fae, outcast mage who makes a living as a freelance demon slayer and has lots of hot sex with various creatures of the night when she's not kicking ass books we'll still remember twenty or even ten years from now. I'm sure there were zillions of LOTR clones from the seventies that no one remembers at all anymore, unless you have a disintegrating, yellowed copy on your bookcase.
Anyway, my personal reading list has expanded significantly. This may be my summer project. Stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, they had strawberries very cheap at the store this morning, so I'm making jam. I loved what I made last year so much that I'm going to make an early summer batch and then I'll do another batch at the end of summer to get me through the fall.