This blog was written by Rachel Kisken, one of our summer interns in 2017. It never got published when she was here, but we’ve decided it’s about time it saw the light of day. Enjoy, and happy reading.
Inspired by debates such as “The Best Order to Watch the Star Wars Films In,” I have figured out my “The Best Order to Read All of Kurt Vonnegut’s Novels.” Vonnegut’s writing is rich with intertextual references that make you feel incredibly well-read when you can spot a character from another book while you’re reading. Also, it’s clear there were certain themes Vonnegut pondered the most. This reading order attempts to cultivate the best “Hey I know you!” exclamations from intertextual references and a way to flow through Vonnegut’s many musings. If you’re interested in buying one (or all) of the books, follow the links provided to purchase them on our site.

1. Player Piano

For your Kurt Vonnegut reading tour, start at his novel career writing’s beginning. Vonnegut was inspired to work on this novel from what he observed on his job with General Electric. The novel looks at what happens to humanity as all jobs become automated. Even though it was published in 1952, the fear of automation taking over human jobs resonates today. Beginning with Player Piano allows for an introduction to Vonnegut’s humanitarianism and scientific skepticism.

2. God Bless, You Mr. Rosewater

After Player Piano move onto God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Here you’ll meet Eliot Rosewater and his overwhelmingly kind heart. Watch as Eliot Rosewater’s generous behavior is considered eccentric by all around him. You decide: does caring for everyone make him crazy? This novel will introduce you to classically “Vonnegut” thematic ideas such as human decency and wealth’s dehumanizing effects. The novel translates well into the present: as one museum employee always jokes, Senator Bernie Sanders probably sleeps with it under his pillow.

3. Slaughterhouse-Five

Arguably Vonnegut’s most famous novel, read the work of Vonnegut’s life. Your new friend, Eliot Rosewater, reappears in the novel. Follow Billy Pilgrim’s life as he lives it – though not in a chronological order. Settings include the fire-bombing of Dresden, Ilium, NY, and the alien planet Tralfamadore. This novel will introduce you to Vonnegut sci-fi elements and his infamous experimentation with autobiographical inserts.

4. Sirens of Titan

One of Vonnegut’s more characteristically sci-fi books, the novel follows American billionaire Malachi Constant’s travels as he embarks on a journey. His travels are foreshadowed to him by Winston Rumfoord, begging the question of who’s in charge of Malachi’s life. The novel involves space travel, an idea already seen in Slaughterhouse-Five. Thematically Sirens of Titan is a good follow-up to Slaughterhouse-Five as it gets you further acquainted with Vonnegut’s ideas on fate and destiny.

5. Cat's Cradle

This novel earned Vonnegut a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. When researching a book on the atom bomb, John (or “Jonah”) discovers a family in possession of a powerful, deadly chemical compound. He travels to San Lorenzo, a fictitious island in the Caribbean, and observes the family’s fate. In the same vein as Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle evaluates the relationship between technology and humankind.

6. Galapagos

Stay tropical with your next book! By then you’ll know your new favorite short story writer: Kilgore Trout. It will be time to meet his son, whose ghost form narrates the story on the new species who populates the Earth in the future’s genesis. From those shipwrecked during the novel comes the newly evolved human species: one who is supposedly happier in the future than we are now.

7. Slapstick

Vonnegut graded this novel a D. Critics tore it apart. Read Vonnegut’s most critically controversial book! In your next reading, see another way Vonnegut morphs the physical human form to highlight interpersonal relationships. Like when the shipwrecked people in Galapagos form their own family, Slapstick also plays on the concept of family. Written as Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain’s autobiography, see what makes a promising boy genius become the President who destroys the United States as we know it.

8. DeadEye Dick

Your next reading is another mock-autobiography, this time following Rudy Waltz. In his youth, Rudy accidentally kills a pregnant woman on Mother’s Day. The novel is told by Rudy who is reflecting from his new home in Haiti. His life story comments on family duties (much like in Slapstick) and acceptance of fate (much like in, well, almost everything by Vonnegut, but especially Slaughterhouse-Five).

9. Bluebeard

Rabo Karabekian’s autobiography is the story in Bluebeard. Rabo is an Abstract Expressionist painter whose work is fading away before his very eyes due to faulty painting materials. Reading this story after Deadeye Dick shows you another way someone’s reflections can help them come to peace with their previous actions. However, in Bluebeard you can also see how Rabo’s life progresses beyond his contemplations. We get insight into his future and how his current relationships can mend his understanding of the past as well.

10. Hocus Pocus

After dealing with Rabo from Bluebeard you’re probably thinking, “We get it, Kurt! A bunch of guys dealing with their less-than-ideal lives! What more is there?” And while Hocus Pocus’s Eugene Debs Hartke doesn’t break that simplified version of a Vonnegut character mold, you certainly will be interested as Vonnegut’s novel once again considers the lives of a marginalized class. In Hocus Pocus we see a college professor get mixed up in a prison riot. This novel continues with Kurt’s mission to humanize people typically dehumanized. A noble pursuit.

11. Jailbird

From Hocus Pocus’s prison riot you can meet a character fresh from their jailtime! Walter F. Starbuck’s autobiography begins when he’s released from prison. His conviction involved his participation in the Watergate Scandal (a minor role, mind you). Born again, he stumbles back into our United States to see what’s left of corruption and the duty to help the less fortunate. You will be excited to hear about how your (by this point) old friend Kilgore Trout is doing.

12. Mother Night

You’ve already met the novel’s protagonist, Howard W. Campbell Jr., in Slaughterhouse-Five. This novel gives insight into his story through his eyes. Is he the same person who lectured Billy Pilgrim on why Americans should fight with Germany? As you near the end of your Vonnegut reading, enjoy one of his earlier works. Like any journey’s ending, you’re nearing your point for self-reflection. This novel asks us to ponder, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

13. Timequake

Welcome to the end of our dear friend Kilgore Trout’s life. But he’ll experience it twice. In this novel, Vonnegut interlays his commentary and thoughts broadly over a story where the world must repeat all its actions, no changes, until the present can be restored. Vonnegut’s last novel contains more autobiographical content than previously explored. As your second-to-last novel in your Vonnegut Reading, Timequake is a great slow-down, allowing you to leave plot-driven stories behind and fully head into Vonnegut-style musings and reflection.

14. Breakfast of Champions

In typical nonlinear Vonnegut style, round off your Vonnegut reading with a book that came in the middle of his career. Saving this for the end pays off because you can appreciate all the intertextual references back to other Vonnegut books. Vonnegut was inspired to write this novel when he was a SAAB dealer in Cape Cod. The novel follows the entanglement of a car salesman and infamous writer and, by this time, good friend Kilgore Trout.

Kathi Badertscher, PhD

Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
Kathi Badertscher, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Dr. Badertscher teaches a variety of BA, MA, and doctoral courses, including Applying Ethics in Philanthropy and History of Philanthropy. She has participated in several Teaching Vonnegut workshops and is a member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Dr. Badertscher has been a guest speaker on ethics in philanthropy, including at the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners – Indianapolis Council; Association of Fundraising Professionals – Indiana Chapter; and Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, Tianjin, China. In 2019 she received IUPUI Office for Women, Women’s Leadership Award for Newcomer Faculty. In 2019 and 2020 she received the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Graduate Teaching Award.
Dr. Badertscher’s publications include “Fundraising for Advocacy and Social Change,” co-authored with Shariq Siddiqui in Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, 5th ed., 2022; “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road,’ co-authored with Christopher Rutty, Pharmacy in History (2020); and three articles in the Indiana Magazine of History: “A New Wishard Is on the Way,” “Evaline Holliday and the Work of Community Service,” and “Social Networks in Indianapolis during the Progressive Era.” Her chapters on social welfare history will appear in three upcoming edited volumes on the history of philanthropy, including “The Legacy of Edna Henry and Her Contributions to the IU School of Social Work,” Women at Indiana University: Views of the Past and the Future, edited by Andrea Walton, Indiana University Press, 2022 (forthcoming). Dr. Badertscher is also the Philanthropy and Nonprofits Consulting Editor for the forthcoming Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Elizabeth Van Allen, Indiana University Press, 2021. Dr. Badertscher is an active volunteer in the Indianapolis community. At present, she is a Coburn Place Safe Haven Board Member and a Children’s Bureau/Families First Brand and Marketing Advisor. Dr. Badertscher holds the MA in History from Indiana University and the MA and PhD in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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