Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (though everyone forgets the “Jr.” these days) is one of the last century’s most celebrated American authors, a true 20th-century treasure. A prolific writer who published 14 novels, three short story collections and five plays and nonfiction books, Vonnegut’s writing is best known for its unrelenting satire, thinly-veiled criticisms and endless hilarity. Vonnegut is one of the pioneers of the postmodern literature movement, and his work ranges from wildly outlandish science fiction to sharp-witted critiques of American politics.
The satirist’s timeless work can be enjoyed by adults (and teenagers) of all ages, and a few of his classic novels are must-reads for anyone who considers themself an avid reader.
Who Was Kurt Vonnegut?
As we approach 100 years of Kurt Vonnegut and celebrate the author’s 99th birthday, there’s never been a better time to start reading the literary great’s books.
Kurt Vonnegut was born November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He boasted a prolific career, publishing his first novel in 1952 at the age of 30. Over the next 50 years or so, Vonnegut published sci-fi novels and short-story collections and essays, his most famous being Slaughterhouse-Five, which many of us read in high school or college lit class. Though Vonnegut died at the age of 84 in 2007, he’s long remembered as a keen observer with a quick wit and black sense of humor. His work as a science fiction writer blends science fiction tropes with social commentary, as so many authors of his time did.
To help you better explore the world of Kurt Vonnegut, we’re giving you the full run-down of Vonnegut’s best novels, focusing in on all 14 and what they offer the modern reader. We’re also taking a look at some of Vonnegut’s wider works, such as essay collections, short stories, speech collections, manuscripts on writing and how to write, and even some of Vonnegut’s personal letters, which have been collected and published posthumously.
And if you get through all of this and still want more, we’re also giving you some suggestions for where to find your next favorite book, with recommendations for both individual books to read or re-read, as well as suggestions for new authors to discover.
Without further ado, here’s your guide to Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of work.
If you only read one book on this list, it should be Slaughterhouse-Five. This is considered Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel and led to much commercial success – and for good reason. Slaughterhouse-Five took him 20 years to write, probably because it hit closest to home. The novel focuses on the atrocities and war crimes that happened after the Allied firebombing of Dresden during World War II through the eyes of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut himself served in the second world war and was captured by Nazi forces during the famous Battle of the Bulge.
Released in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, Slaughterhouse-Five received much praise (and criticism) due to its anti-war sentiment. In fact, this novel was so controversial that it appeared on many banned book lists at the time. One circuit court judge even went so far as to say the novel was “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian.”
If that doesn’t make you eager to read it, then I don’t know what will.
Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s fourth novel, originally published in 1963. The book follows the narrator, John, as he embarks on the quest to write about the inventors of the atomic bomb and their lives on the day Hiroshima was obliterated.
Sounds pretty normal, right? Well, not so fast. Vonnegut also weaves in elements of a fictitious religion known as Bokononism, which comes with a completely unique vocabulary of made-up words.
The result? Another scouring, yet comical, examination of weapons of war, the arms race, religion and more.
While the first two novels on this list focused primarily on real-life war on Earth, The Sirens of Titan is straightforward science fiction with a Vonnegut twist. The stories follow the world’s richest man on a mission to Mars to take part in an interstellar war. This is the first novel that also introduces you to the complex alien race from Tralfamadore, who appear in books throughout Vonnegut’s career.
If you’re weary of the galactic sci-fi elements of The Sirens of Titan, don’t be. Since no Vonnegut book can be taken at face value, The Sirens of Titan also asks deeper questions about free will and the purpose of man.
4. Hocus Pocus
I don’t think Hocus Pocus gets enough love when people talk about Vonnegut’s best novels (but it might just hold a soft spot in my heart because it’s the first I ever read. Perhaps the reason for the lack of attention is that it is one of his later novels, published in 1990.
Hocus Pocus follows a lovable college professor, Eugene Debs Hartke, who gets fired from his university and moves on to teach at a nearby prison, which is later the site of a massive prison break.
Like many of Vonnegut’s novels, he uses the narrator’s retrospective thoughts to examine key issues like the Vietnam War and social prejudices.
Despite being Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano is the one that seems most relevant in today’s high-tech society. The main theme involves the growing problem of automation in a dystopian society that values productivity over human life (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).
While Player Piano doesn’t use the same storytelling structure of most of his novels, it’s impossible to miss his satirical and dark sense of humor.
6. Mother Night
Mother Night contains the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr. (who also makes an appearance in Slaughterhouse-Five, an American who moved to Germany and became a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist.
In some ways, Mother Night is a precursor to Slaughterhouse Five and provides additional examinations of the complexities of war, with a particularly close eye on the internal struggles of the “bad guys.” This theme is also a primary element of Cat’s Cradle.
Breakfast of Champions follows the stories of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout (who happens to be a science fiction author). Trout is a key figure in BoC while also appearing in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Jailbird and Timequake.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the novel’s key plot includes Hoover taking Trout’s writing as fact and not fiction.
Breakfast of Champions touches on the issues of suicide, free will, mental illness, racism and economic inequality.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater covers the story of Eliot Rosewater, a trust-fund millionaire who realizes the evils of his ways, abandons New York City, and sets up the Rosewater Foundation in Indiana designed to dispense love and wealth to those in need.
The primary critiques of the novel include corporate greed and extraordinary family wealth.
Jailbird is Vonnegut’s infamous novel that addresses Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Like most of Vonnegut’s novels, it is written as a memoir (in this case, the memoir of Walter F. Starbuck, who played a minor role in Watergate).
Outside of Watergate, the other main topic is the American labor movement.
Bluebeard, the Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian is one of Vonnegut’s later novels, published in 1987. The book describes the life of Rabo Karabekian, a painter who also appears in Breakfast of Champions. Karabekian is an extremely private and insecure artist who slowly (tries to) comes to terms with opening his life up to the outside world.
It’s very easy to see parallels between the struggles of Vonnegut and Karabekian, particularly later in life, making it a must-read for anyone interested in the writer’s internal struggles.
Released in 1975, Slapstick is a science-fiction novel. Not as well known as Vonnegut’s other works, Slapstick centers around an isolated doctor and his sister. The story focuses on the idea of loneliness and isolation in modern society. While the novel didn’t receive high praise from any major reviewers, it got the movie treatment, adapted into a 1982 film, Slapstick of Another Kind. However, the movie has a significantly more comedic twist and has definitely taken creative liberties with Vonnegut’s work.
12. Deadeye Dick
Connected to Breakfast of Champions (the two works share some characters and settings) and released in 1982, Deadeye Dick focuses on the life of main character Rudy Waltz, an asexual man who spends his life haunted by his accidental killing of a woman years earlier. He works in a hotel in Haiti, and there are some references to radiation weapons and Hitler, but overall, compared to Vonnegut’s other work, Deadeye Dick is relatively forgettable.
Released in 1985, between Deadeye Dick and Bluebeard, Galapagos is not a read for the faint of heart. It attempts to span a million years of time and space, exploring larger-than-life concepts like evolution and the meaning of humanity, re-spinning the story of human evolution from a fascinating perspective, watching as a group of humans stranded on the Galapagos islands avoid a worldwide plague (sound familiar?) and then repopulate the earth with newly evolved human beings over the course of thousands and thousands of years. The all-seeing narrator is particularly interesting, known as Leon Trotsky Trout, who reports on the book’s events with a certain musing wisdom.
One of Vonnegut’s last works, Timequake is serious metafiction. Not familiar with the term? Unless you graduated with a lit degree, you likely wouldn’t be. Metafiction refers to works of fiction that are almost aware that they’re fiction. Popular in postmodern literature, the metafiction style can be found in Slaughterhouse-Five, but also in older works that you may have read for high school or college, such as The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote or Vanity Fair. Newer works that exemplify metafiction include House of Leaves and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As for Timequake, the book follows main character Kilgore Trout (yep, related to the same Trout featured in Galapagos) as a cast of characters are caught in a “timequake,” which requires all those living in 2001 to go back in time to 1991, where they have to repeat everything that happened in their lives in that decade. The story explores themes such as free will.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Other Works
Novels not really your thing? Lucky for you, Kurt Vonnegut published a lot more than just novels. Here are a few of his works that you can check out for short stories, essays and more.
Released in 1968, Welcome to the Monkey House is a short story collection that really ranges in terms of genres, including everything from Vonnegut’s normal science fiction to comedies. There are 25 stories in the collection in total, and each one has something interesting to say — if you’re willing to look beneath the surface level and uncover the commentary that awaits within.
The very last thing published by Kurt Vonnegut before he died in 2007, A Man Without a Country is a collection of essays, an almost autobiographical work that comments on Vonnegut’s own life, the country, art and other topics.
Armageddon in Retrospect was actually published posthumously in 2008. Vonnegut’s son introduces the work, which is a combination of essays, short stories and artwork, all from Vonnegut. As you may be able to guess from the title, everything in the collection centers around war and its effects on the world.
Published even later, in 2014, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters is a collection of Vonnegut’s letters from throughout his life — and not just letters sent after the author had obtained his fame. You can find letters written home while Vonnegut served in the war; letters to his publishing colleagues; and letters to friends and family. It definitely is a book more geared toward strong Kurt Vonnegut fans, as it gives you an intimate and in-depth look at the man behind the typewriter.
Published just before, in 2013, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a collection of commencement speeches that Vonnegut gave at various college graduations. Colleague and fellow author Dan Wakefield compiled the speeches before their initial release. Since 2013, several publishers have re-printed the book, including Penguin Random House in 2020, adding three new speeches. The speeches date back to 1969 and touch on topics such as the First Amendment, social justice, art, loneliness, power and more.
A more recent publication, Love, Kurt: The Vonnegut Love Letters came out in 2020 and is another epistolary work that’s sure to delight anyone who loved the earlier Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Compiled by Vonnegut’s daughter, the collection of letters are those written by Vonnegut to his first wife, Jane. The letters span several years through the 1940s, detailing Vonnegut’s time at Cornell University, his time in the army during World War II, at Dresden, and then his later time as a prisoner of war in Germany before returning to the United States.
For anyone interested in Kurt Vonnegut’s career from purely a writing standpoint, Like Shaking Hands with God is a good place to start exploring the author’s works, as it features conversations between Vonnegut and fellow writer Lee Stringer on topics surrounding how to write, why to write and how to interact with one’s audience.
Another craft book for wannabe writers, Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style was published in 2019 and combines Vonnegut’s works with those of his once-student, Suzanne McConnell. It compiles a wealth of information straight from Vonnegut on the art of writing and is sure to please both Vonnegut fans as well as those looking to level up their fiction writing.
What to Read Next
So you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut, and you’re hungry for more? Even though Vonnegut’s catalog of work is extensive, it is still possible for the voracious reader to eventually run out of Vonnegut material. So, for those folks (or for those who might want something like Vonnegut, but just more attuned to their personal tastes), here are a few suggestions of Vonnegut-adjacent works to pick up the next time you’re at your favorite bookstore.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
If you’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five, chances are good that you’ve read Catch-22, but just in case you haven’t, here it is. Both novels cover the theme of war, both are written by veterans, and both authors knew one another. So, pick up Catch-22 by Joseph Heller for a look at yet another classic that covers themes similar to those most beloved by Vonnegut.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Along the same lines, if you’re looking to round out your classic literature shelf, pick up Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, even if you read it in high school. This work was a big favorite of Vonnegut’s, according to the Vonnegut Library and Museum, so much so that he had five copies of the work in his personal collection.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Another book that’s often shelved nearby Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is fiction with a grand style that’s sure to sweep you up, so long as you can get past the initial shock from the unorthodox prose (which will seem all the more unorthodox if you’re more accustomed to reading today’s New York Times bestsellers). If you can’t quite get yourself engaged enough to appreciate the dark humor, though, you might try watching the classic 1975 film by the same name.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A science-fiction tale that broke all sorts of boundaries when it was first released, A Clockwork Orange is sure to be a hit with anyone who enjoyed Vonnegut’s more heavily science fiction-leaning work. With its dark humor, fantastical setting, slightly horrific content and underlying philosophical themes, A Clockwork Orange is one to keep you thinking long after you’ve turned the last page.
Authors like Kurt Vonnegut
Otherwise, if you’re looking for authors similar to Kurt Vonnegut, whose work you can devour en masse, you might want to try…
- John Steinbeck
- Ray Bradbury
- Chuck Palahniuk
- Joseph Conrad
- George Orwell
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Mark Z. Danielewski
- Hubert Selby Jr.
- J.D. Salinger
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The Best Kurt Vonnegut Books:
- Cat’s Cradle
- The Sirens of Titan
- Hocus Pocus
- Player Piano
- Mother Night
- Breakfast of Champions
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
- Deadeye Dick
- Welcome to the Monkey House
- A Man Without a Country
- Armageddon in Retrospect
- Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
- If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young
- Love, Kurt: The Vonnegut Love Letters
- Like Shaking Hands with God
- Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style