Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of the most celebrated American authors of the last 100 years. He was a prolific writer who published 14 novels, three short story collections, 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.
To get you started on your deep dive into Vonnegut’s work, I’ve ranked the best Kurt Vonnegut books for your reading pleasure.
Why should you trust me? When I was in high school, I stumbled upon Hocus Pocus in my school’s library. After finishing that, I set out on a task to read every Vonnegut novel (I did this frequently – I also remember reading every S.E. Hinton and Matt Christoper books in grade school). It took me a couple of years, but I finished before my sophomore year in college.
Does that make me a Vonnegut expert? No. But it does make me a little more qualified than most.
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.
2. Cat’s Cradle
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.
5. Player Piano
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.
While the work of prolific science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut covers many of the same themes throughout his career, the stories are far from redundant. Vonnegut possessed the unique ability to weave wild tales through time and space while maintaining a solid footing in the problems of modern Americans.
If you consider yourself a fan of cynicism, sarcasm or metafiction, you need to add at least one of the above novels to your library.
I would also like to mention that I really enjoy Vonnegut’s other novels and short stories. It pains me to leave these books off of the top ten list:
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The 10 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