The website Comics.com hosts a lot of syndicated comic strips, but for a while, you could only look at the last month's worth of strips. Now, they've done something pretty awesome. The entire collection of published Peanuts strips are available online, all the way back to the first strip, published October 2, 1950, to the present! Good Grief! That's an incredible resource for fans and historians.
I read the paperback collections of Peanuts strips when I was a kid. By high school, I had over fifty of the books, including some special books like Snoopy and the Red Baron, and two Peanuts cookbooks.
The books I had included reprints from the 1960s and 1970s. But now, I'll be able to read them all! The earliest ones seem pretty primitive, so it's hard to realize now how radically different and new the strip was when it first came out, with its highly abstract, simply drawn characters and their more subtle, less slapstick, deprecating humor.
Even from my books, it was easy to see the development of the strip over time, something that I always find interesting. Seeing it from beginning to end will allow one to fully appreciate the maturation of the comic over time, especially considering that Charles Schulz did it all, without assistants or ghost writers or artists.
And of course there are various landmarks to look for. When did Charlie Brown first start wearing the zigzag striped shirt? When did Snoopy start thinking words in thought balloons? When were the various characters first introduced? The strip started out with Charlie Brown, Shermy, and Patty, with Snoopy's first appearance coming very quickly. But Lucy, Linus, Sally, Peppermint Patty and others came later, some much later.
I'm currently reading Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis. While interesting, I find that I'm not really that interested in Schulz as a person--I'm more interested in the stuff that's more related to his strip and artwork: his development as an artist, his attempts to become a published cartoonist, etc.
Apparently, there's some controversy over how well Michaelis depicted Schulz as a person. I can't say for sure, but really, what would be interesting about a kind, warm, gentle person who didn't do anything but sit at his drawing board every day? Even with such a person, there must be something behind it all to make him that way.
Anyway, while I didn't always get the jokes, especially when I first started reading the books, I grew up with the Peanuts characters and loved them dearly, as I suspect did many others. I'm not sure I can recommend the biography, but I can certainly recommend reading (and re-reading) the original strips, all 20 thousand some-odd of them. Good Ol' Charlie Brown.