The first short story I remember ever reading was Ursula K Le Guin’s piece “The Rule of Names.” It was the Science Fiction example in my 4th Grade English textbook (though most, if not all, would consider it second-world fantasy these days).
The story takes place in Earthsea, the land of Le Guin’s most famous series, on a small island where the inhabitants are extremely superstitious. They believe in the power of words above all things, and are always careful what they say. The magic system in Earthsea is based on words of power, too, and this short story begins with a teacher instructing her students in the naming process: children are given a name at birth, and then at puberty they are given their adult name. This adult name must be kept secret, because with it they can be controlled by magicians who hold the power of words.
The rest of the story involves a shape-shifting dragon and a mage named Blackbeard. There is a magical battle and disaster occurs when Blackbeard uses the dragon’s name unwisely, trapping the dragon in its monstrous form and allowing it free reign to terrorize the islanders.
I remember reading this and being swept up not only in the adventure and magic, but in the meaning. For the first time in my memory, I understood that a story was telling me something in a way totally unlike the morals of Aesop’s fables and Jesus’s parables. Instead of spelling out the theme, instead of using direct allegory or overt representation, Le Guin hid the meaning inside the dialogue, inside the characterization, the plot, the scenery – everywhere.
And I started to understand, just a tiny bit, what could be done with storytelling. How it can change minds and reveal truth sometimes better than blunt statements. I began to appreciate metaphor (though I wouldn’t have been able to name it such).
There are a few authors I read so early who left an impression strong enough that I remember it all these years later. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of them, and I have never read one of her books without relishing the metanarratives and philosophical exploration (even when I’m caught up in the excitement and drama).
I most recommend:
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)
The Other Wind
And The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which besides having the coolest title in the history of cool titles, won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. It is from Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (though it stands alone), and is about a human diplomat to an alien world. It is beautiful.
For short stories, check out The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Also a Hugo winner. This is a link to the full text, btw. It starts with one of my favorite opening lines: “With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.”