Details: Edited by Christopher Tolkien & Guy Kay; (c) George Allen & Unwin 1977; ISBN 0-04-823139-8
Verdict: The Silmarillion didn't quite live up to my expectations; it is noticeably unfinished and seems more like a reference book (and an incomplete one at that) than a novel.
Reasons for reading it: I think the real question here is how I managed to take 20 years to get round to reading this!
How it came into my hands: I absconded with my Dad's copy when I was at home over Christmas.
The Silmarillion contains loads of information that I wanted to know, all kinds of stuff that I'm unclear about regarding the background of LotR. But most of it doesn't really work as a story. I found it pretty slow going to read through; an overview at this level doesn't really allow for character development or engagement with the story. The archaic language mostly grates, and only very rarely attains the level of poetry of LotR. I can quite see why Tolkien had difficulty publishing this; I almost certainly wouldn't have struggled through if it hadn't been Tolkien.
It's also rather depressing where LotR succeeds in being tragic. Everything declines from the perfection of creation, and how apparent victories are only temporary upward blips in a downward trend. This made it hard for me to care about any of the dramatic events, since the only thing at stake seemed to be whether the decline would be faster or slower, and I wasn't really committed to the characters' happiness either (except those who are fleshed out in LotR). I found it frustrating, above all; there are lots and lots of glimpses of stories that I'd really like to see expanded to LotR-length novels! The Return of the Noldor, particularly, though I'd not object to Beren and Lúthien or a number of others either. *sigh*. Also the whole unfinished feel discouraged me a bit. There's plenty of stuff I wanted to know that isn't really explained; how hobbits fit into the picture, for example, or where Tom Bombadil comes from.
There were two aspects of the The Silmarillion which rather confounded my expectations. The first was that it certainly redresses the problem that people complain about in LotR, namely lacking strong female characters. There's no shortage of those in The Silmarillion, but to be honest that's not something that ever really bothered me in LotR. Secondly, it seems quite surprisingly Christian, in contrast to LotR which is quite carefully and explicitly outside the Christian mythos. Everything from little random biblical references, to the KJV-type language with 'it came to pass'es all over the place, to some rather messianic bits in the Tuor narrative, to the whole structure being based around a Fall from Grace; it's almost like a Christian conception of what history might be like if the Passion had never happened.
I couldn't tell whether the repetition and inconsistency and fragmentation of the narrative is meant to be deliberately imitating the Bible, or whether it's simply down to the book being a bit unfinished. Which uncertainty reminds me of that amusing parody of Biblical Criticism that lethargic_man linked to a while back.
There were a few things I liked: the way that trees are almost people really appealed to me, and I was very taken by the concept of the Straight Road, with the world somehow being both flat and round. I had lots of fun with the linguistic notes at the end, too! Probably the most fun thing about reading The Silmarillion was talking about it afterwards with lethargic_man; he is massively knowledgeable about the background of the development of the mythos, and explained all kinds of stuff that I hadn't understood about how things fit together. The geography in particular!
On the whole, I'd like to own a copy of The Silmarillion to use as a reference and concordance to LotR. But I don't think it's all that worth reading as a novel.