The Beginner’s Guide to Kurt Vonnegut
There has never been a better time to start reading Kurt Vonnegut. To begin with, today is his 94th birthday. Second, we appear to be living inside one of his novels, with an egocentric billionaire slouching toward the White House, 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, 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? Let’s begin:
Which Kurt Vonnegut Novel to Read First?
So you want to read a Vonnegut novel, but not sure which one? 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.
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.
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 he 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.
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?
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.