|Tolkien's Books: Suggestions for Readers|
The "usual" or "recommended" order of reading for Tolkien's Middle-earth related books is:
This is the order in which the books have been published and which enables a gradual deepening of understanding Tolkien's mythological epos.
But as always it is not quite so simple: While The Hobbit and - to some degree - the first chapters of LotR were meant as children's books the later parts of LotR and The Silmarillion are meant to represent Tolkien's mythology and to "compete" in some way with actual mythologies like the Norse or the Greek or the Christian. And while The Hobbit, the LotR and The Silmarillion can be read fluently (except for the vast number of names and places introduced in the The Silmarillion), the UT and the HoMe contain not only Tolkien's stories, but are also "spiced" with introductions, notes, comments and short summaries by Christopher Tolkien and therefore are even somewhat harder to read.
While I have read the Hobbit and the LotR rather quickly, I have "digested" The Silmarillion in small doses and - I have to agree - I have had a hard time to keep up with the names and places. I frequently used the index and maps throughout the reading. The UT and HoMe were a different story: I did not read them cover to cover, but rather read individual chapters whenever I came across a topic of interest elsewhere (except for the Lost Tales I & II, which I read like the Sil).
However I would recommend the UT and the HoMe only to those, really interested in digging deeper into Tolkien's works and who do not mind at times reading several drafts of a certain story or chapter.
To those interested in the lighter side of Tolkien's works I would rather recommend "Leaf by Niggle", "Smith of Wootton Major", "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" (poem) or Farmer Giles of Ham (all those 4 are compiled in the book "Tales from the Perilous Realm"), which are not Middle-earth related, but fun to read anyway.
"The Letters of JRR Tolkien" by Humphrey Carpenter provide a lot of additional information and interpretations from the author himself. Furthermore Robert Foster's "The Complete Guide to Middle-earth" and Karen W. Fonstad's "The Atlas of Tolkiens Middle-earth" are companions to the books I would not want to miss anymore. And Carpenter's Tolkien biography (JRR Tolkien-A Biography) is also highly recommendable for the freaks amongst you. More for the "Tolkien scholar" provides "Tree and Leaf" which contains the Essay "On Fairy Stories", "Leaf by Niggle", "Mythopoeia" and "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth". Or "The Monsters and the Critics" which contains a few of Tolkien's essays on various topics.
For those interested in the languages Tolkien invented (cf. Languages of Arda), I would recommend (aside from the appendices of LotR, the Sil and UT) to pay H.K. Fauskanger's website Ardalambion a visit or check out Jim Allan's book An Introduction to Elvish..." plus Vol V of the HoMe series ("The Lost Road and Other Writings").
And as for the order in which to read them: Whatever you feel comfortable with (however, I would start with either the Hobbit or LotR).
And if you care to hear another opinion - here it is
I personally would advise a reader to start with "The Silmarillion" as this book provides the story right from the beginning of the days. It starts with the creation of the world and while reading it further on (although it is not an easy task to handle all those numerous names of people, places, creatures and events!) the reader gradually enters this world, becomes a part of it and its history, feels its joys and sorrows, lives with the lives of the peoples and the races who inhabited that world, fights in great battles, wanders the vast unexplored lands of Middle Earth... Thus the reader obtains valuable knowledge and starts to understand the world called Eš.
Only then one should procede with reading "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". There the story excitingly evolves, telling about events that happened later and in continuation to those described in "The Silmarillion", therefore closely related and based on the story laid in it. So, without having read about these earlier, (in "The Silmarillion"), one might find himself lost and confused about certain characters and/or events that are mentioned in "The Hobbit" and in the "The Lord of the Rings" but are actually told in details in "The Silmarillion".
So, my advise to the new readers is:
Chosing such an order of reading one can witness the full historical development of a world created by a true Master Writer - the Professor J.R.R.Tolkien.