The order to read Tolkien's books
a suggestion by David Bratman
A query was passed on to me, as semi-official bibliographer of The Mythopoeic Society, for a sequence to read as complete as possible a history of J.R.R. Tolkien's imaginary creation of Middle-earth: not every version of every story, but one late, full version of each story, in the order in which they take place in the fictional history.
First one must realize that Smith of Wootton Major, "Leaf by Niggle", and Farmer Giles of Ham (and the children's stories Mr. Bliss and Roverandom) are not part of that history, though there is a passing reference to it in Roverandom.
You can get pretty much the full sequence in the shortest possible form by just reading the historical chronicles in Appendices A and B of The Lord of the Rings.
The next step up is to read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings in that order, because that's the order they take place.
To add in the "good stories" from Unfinished Tales and "The History of Middle-earth" (HoME) is also possible. The explanatory notes deal with incomplete matters and inconsistencies in the manuscripts, and the ways in which they differ from the standard versions in the earlier books, but if you don't want to be concerned with that, then don't read the notes.
Here's a fuller reading outline including many of these stories:
This is sketchy, and you'll find overlaps, inconsistencies, and gaps, but it covers at least one full late version of most of the Middle-earth stories Tolkien told or began to tell.
A detailed chronology of reading Tolkien's tales in chronological sequence chapter-by-chapter (sometimes even paragraph-by-paragraph), instead of work-by-work as here, was compiled by Larry King and may be found at http://www.chronology.org/tolkien/. It includes The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, but not any of the HoME books or other sources listed here.