A Beginner’s Guide & Recommended Vonnegut Reading Order, Including which are “the best” Vonnegut books
There has never been a better time to start reading Kurt Vonnegut. To begin with, today is his 94th birthday. (or it was, when I first wrote this.) Second, we appear to be living inside one of his novels, with an egocentric billionaire slouching toward the White House (I first wrote this in 2016), the National Anthem at the center of controversy, and our entire existence increasingly descending into a parody of itself (for more on all of this, see my article What Would Kurt Vonnegut Say About the 2016 Election?)
But where to begin? The first Vonnegut novel was published over six decades ago. In the next fifty years of his life, he wrote another thirteen novels—for a total of fourteen novels—plus hundreds of short stories and essays, one play, and created a series of paintings and drawings.
I’m here to tell you where to start, and how. You should read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, if you haven’t already. Should you read all of them? That depends. But you should at least read one of them. (Note: this blog post originally began as something I wrote for the /r/truebooks subreddit, for people looking to read more Vonnegut and not sure where to start.)
In order to give you some guidance in determining a reading order for his lists, I’ve divided his novels into three tiers:
- Tier One: The novels to start with. His masterpieces. Or, if you’re only going to read one or two of his novels, choose one from this list.
- Tier Two: The ones to read after you’ve burned through the first tier. Not that these are worse, but they are perhaps less accessible, or won’t make as much sense unless you’ve read the others first.
- Tier Three: The novels that are either very bizarre, very meta-fictional, less novels than thought experiments, or the ones that expect you to have a greater understanding of who Vonnegut is before tackling.
Make sense? Now, let’s begin with own personal recommended approach to best Vonnegut books to read, in which order.
Which Kurt Vonnegut Novel to Read First?
So you want to read a Vonnegut novel, but not sure which one? You are probably asking “which one is the best?” I recommend beginning with one of the following:
- Cat’s Cradle
- God Bless You, Mr Rosewater
- Breakfast of Champions
Deciding which of these to begin with? Read on for a specific reading order of the best Vonnegut novels. These are the four to start with—and four of my personal favorites. Yes, I think these are the best Vonnegut books. But even if you don’t agree that they’re his best, I still think they’re the best starting point.
Cat’s Cradle (1963)
I consider this to be the first (chronologically) of his best novels. It’s also a great introduction to Vonnegut, and it’s easy-to-read, through his use of short chapters and fast pacing. Opens with a Moby-Dick reference, explores religion, science, war, and the apocalypse, and includes some very fun characters.
God Bless You, Mr Rosewater (1965)
A beautiful novel, in terms of characters and insights, with a very simple plot. Like several of his others, this book is about science fiction while not actually being a science fiction novel.
His saddest novel, and arguably his best. The only reason not to open with this novel is that I think it helps to have some awareness of who Kurt Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout are, in advance of reading it. It’s a good one to read immediately after God Bless Your, Mr. Rosewater. It’s also the inspired by his experiences as a POW in World War II, including his firsthand experience of the firebombing of Dresden.
Breakfast of Champions (1973)
His masterpiece. My favorite novel by him. One of my favorite novels ever. One of my favorite books ever. The reason not to start with this is the same as Slaughterhouse-Five: it’s best to know Vonnegut before going into this one. However, if could only read one, I would make it this one.
And yes, I think one could also argue that these four are the best Kurt Vonnegut books.
Which Vonnegut Novel Should I Read Next?
Did you finish the four above? Or, perhaps you are looking for something less meta-fictional or more science fiction. Perhaps you want something that’s more focused on the story and less on the ideas.
The Sirens of Titan (1959)
I love this book. If anyone else had written it, it would be my favorite book by that person. The only reason it’s not Vonnegut’s book is because he wrote so many other good ones (see above). This book’s central characters also serve as an interesting parallel to today’s conflicts and dramas.
Player Piano (1952)
His first novel, and the one that is most conventional science fiction. Less humor than anything else he wrote.
Like a lot of classic sci-fi, it starts with mundanity, before exploring some big ideas. During the third act, the action begins.
A fictional account of Nixon, Watergate, and more. One of his most underrated, it seems to me. Although Vonnegut didn’t underrate it. he gave it an A.
Mother Night (1961)
People don’t seem to talk about this one very often, other than to point out how underrated it is. And it is. It’s another World War II novel, from the perspective of an American man who may or may not be a Nazi. It’s also, arguably, Forrest Gump but with Nazis instead of Americans.
Need to Read Everything Vonnegut Wrote? Enjoy These Novels, Too.
Please note that none of these are bad, in any way. But they are the ones where he gets weirder, with more meta-fictional, less narrative, and oftentimes references to his other characters and works.
This one is out there. It’s far more sci-fi that the several novels he wrote before it, and also has less of a plot than almost anything else he has written.
Deadeye Dick (1982)
This one is cool, interesting, entertaining, and also functions as something of a mid-quel to Breakfast of Champions.
A fun exploration of the art world, while also a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale.
A good one to read later, as it will be better enjoyed if you know Kilgore Trout well. Few novels span one million years successfully, and this is one of them. Concerned largely with science, evolution, and what makes us human.
Hocus Pocus (1990)
This is one of the two novels he wrote in the ’90s, which were his last two novels. At this point, he’s really playing fast-and-loose with narratives. (Note: it’s not about witches).
Really out there. Consider yourself forewarned. Metafiction and time travel melted together, with plenty of Kilgore Trout.
What About the Rest of Vonnegut’s Books? Which of Those is the Best?
What about that play he wrote? Or his short stories and essay collections? Perhaps that’s a blog post for another day. For now, pick one of the novels above and get reading.
Interested in reading more by D. F. Lovett? Check out check out The Moonborn by D. F. Lovett.
Thank you. Have started Cat’s Cradle.. Going to try and rip through that first tier in the next few months.. I think I was supposed to read Slaughterhouse Five in high school.
Mother Night is possibly my favorite of all books. Bluebeard comes in second as one of Vonnegut’s. I’m currently reading Player Piano, which I’m barely a few pages into, and I’m excited to read the rest of them. But I think I need to go back and read Slaughterhouse Five before I move on to the others, especially after reading Breakfast of Champions. And, yes, despite the fact that Mother Night and Bluebeard are my favorites, Breakfast of Champions should absolutely be the first to read.
I’ve read most of Vonnegut’s books and just now finishing up the last few. I got sidetracked recently and reread a few from my High School and my on and off college years. I enjoyed them then, but I enjoy them now in a deeper richer way in my mid 60’s. Way back in my inexperienced years I didn’t fully appreciate his dark humor and oddly endearing disdain for our society and human behavior. Now I get it. I REALLY REALLY get it and with that understanding I feel like I’m having a warm cranky old man chat with a man I met and befriended way back when I was wet behind the ears. This man is a treasure and one of the greatest American authors.
I maintain Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is keeping me sane in 2018. Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.
There’s no way to not rate Slaughterhouse Five as the first Vonnegut novel to read, and if you only read ONE, it must be Slaughterhouse Five. Slightly autobiographical, it has Vonnegut’s serious thoughts about war, while it demonstrates that reading Vonnegut is going to take a walk around the block all the way into outer space, every time! Vonnegut was a good man; I grew up after him, so I got to read Breakfast of Champions before I was even 20 years old. I don’t have anything sensible to say other than, thank you, Mr. Vonnegut. The pen transcended the grave! You are still here!
Can not begin to describe the effect his novels have had on my life. I began reading vonnegut’s novels pretty young, ( slaughter house five excerpts in a text book I believe) and just have never been able to get away from them. I’ve re-read all but maybe a couple of his books and it’s rewarding every time.
Whenever I feel out of sorts with the world, I read Breakfast of Champions. I used to work in disaster recovery and it provides the perfect solutions to many of the problems needing to be solved. Poor Bahamian man wants to die because his family is all dead from massive hurricane. B of C says give everyone a new middle name and all with same middle name become family. Way to think out of the box Kurt! Thanks again.
A friend recommended Breakfast of Champions shortly after it was published when I was in High School and I kept reading after that. I loved his characters — “one day there’s going to be a knock on your door….”; “you think that’s bad, that ain’t bad…”; “the son-of-a bitch had Ice9 in a thermos.” I could go on…
I first read Slaughter House 5 when it came out in 1969 – I was a high school senior – then devoured everything he wrote prior to that time – I have been addicted – and have read every new book as was released – I had the opportunity to see him speak at a church in Harvard Square – he was amazing – gruff and when his time was up – stopped mid-sentence – his perspective to the world is unique – I continue to re-read is books and find a deeper understanding of life – The Sirens of Titan – reminds me how self important we think we are as a species
I love KVJ and have read all of his books. I have been having KVJ timequakes during the Covid 19 pandemic and imagining a Kilgore Trout novel that explains it all…
Nice job assuming that everyone is an idiot. I’ve already read plenty of Vonnegut, so don’t talk down to me. Jerk.
I didn’t write this article for you. This is for people who haven’t read Vonnegut. Next time, try reading the headline and the opening paragraphs before deciding an article not written for you is talking down to you.