The 15 Greatest Computer Books of All Time
Writing about music, a famous, impossible-to-properly-attribute saying goes, is like dancing about architecture. In 2010, anyone who dares write a book about computers runs the risk of facing a variant of this conundrum. The Web is so good at conveying information about technology that it's hard to recall an age when the default medium for any discussion of computers more ambitious than a magazine article was a static, difficult-to-update, not-necessarily-illustrated printed volume.
But that era existed. The best books about computers were enormously successful, and many of them were really good. They deserve to be celebrated.
When I sought out tomes for this list, my goal was to identify ones that were interesting, influential, and of lasting significance. (Two thirds of the ones I ended up picking are still in print, including at least a couple that are theoretically obsolete.) I relied on my own excessive library and solicited advice from my Twitter pals, who both confirmed some of my choices and reminded me of contenders I'd forgotten about. Along the way, I decided not to include works of fiction (someone should write "The Ten Greatest Computer-Related Novels," but that someone isn't me).
The earliest book here came out in 1968; the newest one was first published in 1999. I didn't set out to exclude works published in recent years-it just worked out that way, and even though I'm not arguing that new computer books are obsolete in the 21st century, I think the focus on the past makes sense. (Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is a very good book, but we'll know it's a great one if it's still in print and still being talked about in, say, 2027.)
The works that follow are listed in chronological order. As in "The 25 Most Notable Quotes in Tech History," I've also listed each book's Googleosity-the number of references to it on the Web, as determined by a Google search. It's an imprecise but telling indicator of each work's lasting impact.
The Art of Computer Programming
Author: Donald Knuth
Published: 1968 (first edition of first volume)
Still in print? Yes
Why it matters: The Art of Computer Programming isn't exactly Programming for Dummies. For one thing, all examples are presented in MIX, an assembly-language-like programming language of author Knuth's own devising; to understand this multi-volume work, you've got to learn a new programming language which you're not going to use in the real world. For another, it runs to more than 3000 pages even in its current, incomplete form. But its essential usefulness is reflected in the fact that people still care about it more than four decades after the first release of its first volume. It's a little as if a car repair manual that originated in the Model T era was still widely read and respected-and was still a work in progress.
And you don't have to actually read TAOCP-or, for that matter, be a computer programmer-to be fascinated by it. Knuth's Web site is a treasure trove of intriguing stuff, including his explanation of why he stopped using e-mail twenty years ago, information about his offer of a $2.56 bounty for errors found in his books (and why it's now paid as a deposit into a fictional bank in an imaginary country), and much more.
TAOCP also led to the creation of an important piece of software. In 1977, unhappy with the quality of the typography in the proofs of the second edition of its second volume, Knuth created TeX, a sophisticated digital typesetting system that continues to be used to this day, particularly for technical publications and those full of mathematical formulas.
Bill Gates once said that anyone who had actually read all of The Art of Computer Programming should send him his or her résumé. But nobody's yet read it in its entirety, because it isn't done yet. Three complete volumes have been published to date: volumes one, two, and three in 1968, 1969, and 1973, respectively. All have been released in updated editions, and five fascicles (sections) of volume four have been published in recent years. Knuth says he's working nearly full-time on volume four these days, has started work on volume five, and may write volumes six and seven. Long may the series-and its author-wave.
Basic Computer Games
Author: David H. Ahl
Published: 1973 (as 101 BASIC Computer Games)
Still in print? After many years of unavailability, it's back! It was just republished as an e-book
Why it matters: If you used computers in the 1970s, chances were high that you wrote much of your own software in BASIC. Much of the software you didn't write, you typed in from listings in magazines and books. And no source of BASIC programs was more important than BASIC Computer Games, which was edited by Creative Computing founder David Ahl and was the first computer book to sell a million copies.
The first version was published by Ahl's then-employer, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the games it contained were designed to run on the company's minicomputers. The 1978 Microcomputer Edition was beloved by owners of Apple IIs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, Commodore PETs, and other early machines-who not only had to type in the games and stomp out any typos, but also tweak the code as they went to conform to their particular microcomputer's flavor of BASIC. (TRS-80 owners eventually got a custom version of the book, published by Radio Shack itself; there was also a sequel, which came in both Microcomputer and TRS-80 editions.)
What sort of games did the book include? The classics! Such as Nim, Hammurabi, Mugwump, and-with permission from Paramount-Super Star Trek. (I misremembered the legendary Hunt the Wumpus as being in there as well, but it was actually part of More BASIC Computer Games.) None of them had graphics, unless you count pictures composed of alphanumeric characters, and all were pretty, well, basic. But if you weren't there, trust me: they were a blast.
Computer Lib/Dream Machines
Author: Ted Nelson
Still in print? No, sadly (but you can download a PDF of an extended chunk of it here)
Why it matters: Theodor Holm Nelson is most famous as the creator of Xanadu-the original hypertext/hypermedia system, which he's been working on for fifty years-and for having coined the words "hypertext" and hypermedia" along the way. Xanadu remains unfinished, and, though it rankles Nelson, seems to have been preempted by the existence of the Web.
Computer Lib/Dream Machines, on the other hand, was completed more than thirty-five years ago, and it exudes evidence that it sprung from the same endlessly creative brain as Xanadu. It's two books in one: Flip Computer Lib (an introduction to computers, with the subtitle "You Can and Must Understand Computers NOW") around, and it becomes Dream Machines (an overview of computer graphics and hypermedia). Together, they make up a manifesto about the user of computers for creative means that's still inspiring.
Both "books" consist of brief essays, in a variety of typefaces with handwritten annotations and doodled illustrations. They're opinionated, full of invented words such as stretchtext and fantics, and remarkably prescient given that Nelson wrote them shortly before the first rudimentary PCs appeared. It's not just the discussion of hypermedia that's visionary: He also discusses gesture-based input, virtual reality, undo features, and an array of other things that eventually came to pass, or surely will in the years to come.
Nelson's book had become something of a historical artifact even when Microsoft Press released a new edition in 1987. Paradoxically, it's also still a rewarding read for anyone who cares about the future of technology: Just last month, blogger Dave Winer bemoaned its unavailability and tried to jumpstart a new edition . And Nelson continues to write books. His recent Geeks Bearing Gifts, a history of the personal computer, has some of CL/DM‘s playful, poetic inventiveness.
The Soul of a New Machine
Author: Tracy Kidder
Still in print? Yes
Why it matters: This is probably the most highly-regarded computer-related book ever published-I mean, I love DOS for Dummies, but if it won a Pulitzer Prize or the American Book Award it's news to me.
Kidder, one of the grand masters of the art of narrative journalism, tells the tale of a group of employees of minicomputer maker Data General and the birth of the company's Eclipse MV/8000 machine. Soul was instantly acknowledged as a classic, and it's held up extremely well, whether you consider it a business book or a story that reads like good fiction but happens to be true. If you want to give a behind-the-scenes book about the computer business-or any business-the highest praise, there's still no bigger compliment than comparing it to The Soul of a New Machine.
At the time Kidder did his writing and reporting, the minicomputer business was booming and Data General was one if its leading lights. When the book was published, the microcomputer revolution was underway. And within a few years, the minicomputer business and nearly every company in it began to crumble. (Data General held on better than most, but it was acquired by EMC in 1999.) All of that brings a certain poignancy to the book when you read it today-but the characters and themes are as pertinent as ever even if the technology isn't.
The Word Processing Book
Author: Peter McWilliams
Still in print? No
Why it matters: Eight months after he wrote and published The Word Processing Book, McWilliams produced a similar, even better-selling tome called The Personal Computing Book. But The Word Processing Book is the more fascinating artifact. It dates from a period when one of the most common questions people had about computers was "Why should I use one to write rather than sticking to my trusty typewriter?" McWilliams answered the question and recommended specific early-1980s models-from the Coleco ADAM to the Teleram T-3000-but he did so in a profoundly rambling, idiosyncratic style, rife with self-referential asides, jokes, woodcut illustrations, old ads, cartoons, and other supplemental material.
McWilliams wasn't the first person to prove that how-to prose about computers could be lively and entertaining rather than dry and technical, but his self-published books hit bestseller lists, attracted attention from the mainstream press, and converted doubters such as William F, Buckley. They're spiritual ancestors of the Dummies series, but with a much stranger, more personal feel. (It's hard to imagine a large publisher having faith in his uninhibited style.)
For a while, McWilliams was a one-man industry devoted to books about word processing and other aspects of the burgeoning personal-technology industry: He wrote a special edition of The Word Processing Book for KayPro computers, Questions & Answers on Word Processing, and Word Processing on the IBM PC. He passed away in 2000, having moved on to write more general self-help bestsellers such as Life 101 . (He also became a medical marijuana activist.) But if there was a McWilliams guide to Word 2010, it would be a good read for sure.
Inside the IBM PC
Author: Peter Norton
Still in print? Yes, in a variant called Peter Norton's New Inside the PC
Why it matters: He no longer writes books or magazine articles. He's not in the software business, either-and for the last few years, he hasn't even posed for software boxes. But for a couple of decades, the image of a bespectacled, arms-crossed Peter Norton was synonymous with the fixing of busted PCs.
Norton's first book was Inside the IBM PC (later known as Peter Norton's Inside the PC). It was the definitive plain-English, nuts-and-bolts guide to motherboards, processors, disks, other components, and the software the PC used to make them all work together-an enormously valuable resource back in the day when typical PC users had to worry more about their machines' innards. It went through nine editions and was followed by numerous other Norton books, most of which involved coauthors. (Judging from the experience of a friend of mine who cowrote one of them, writing a book with Peter Norton pretty much meant writing a book-one with a photo of Peter on the cover.)
Norton's books were bestsellers, but he made his fortune with his software company. He sold it to Symantec way back in 1990, and gradually left geekdom behind for philanthropy, art collecting, and other worthy activities. Inside the PC was last updated in 2002, and while any book about computer hardware written close to a decade ago is by definition horrendously out-of-date, the basic concept remains powerful.
Author: Carol Kaehler (according to a comment here, in a great post about this book)
Still in print? No, unless you claim that the manuals Apple ships with new Macs are somehow descended from it.
Googleosity: Um, given its name, pretty much impossible to determine
Why it matters: Apple's original 1984 Macintosh was an elegant, approachable computer that went on sale in an era in which most people still hadn't used a computer. Appropriately enough, it came with elegant, approachable documentation that was clearly meant for people who had never read a computer manual. It's a Steve Jobs product that happens to be made out of paper rather than metal or plastic.
"You're about to learn a new way to use a computer," the manual begins. "If this is your first experience with a computer, you're starting at a great time." Sections have assume-nothing titles like "Where Does Your Information Go? and "Using Scroll Bars to See More," and there are tips such as a recommendation to save files every fifteen minutes just in case the power goes off. The whole thing is illustrated with crisp infographics and photo spreads of preppy white men using Macs.
As far as I know, no modern computer comes with anything like this: The most recent Mac I bought was accompanied with a tiny square black-and-white pamphlet that's well-done its own way but nowhere near as ambitious. Maybe that's a roundabout tribute to the first Mac: It helped create a world in which just about everybody is computer literate and manuals can cut to the chase.
The Little Kingdom
Author: Michael Moritz
Still in print? It finally came back a year ago as Return to the Little Kingdom
Why it matters: Dozens of books have been published about Apple. Some are superb; many are worth reading; more than a few are absolutely terrible. This one was the first, and still one of the very best.
Michael Moritz, a TIME reporter who later became one of Silicon Valley's most successful venture capitalists, wrote about the early history of Apple when it was current events, not the stuff of legend. The book's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak aren't icons, and machines that eventually became footnotes (such as the Apple III and the Lisa) are discussed in detail. It's Apple without the clichés. And as the story ends, the Mac has just been released and Steve Jobs is dreaming of the stunning machines Apple would be building in half a decade.
The recent new edition-which, despite the new name, is the old book with a new introduction-is good news. But if you can get your hands on the original version, it's fun to rewind your brain and consume it like a 1984 reader who knows nothing of iPods or iPhones or iPads.
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Author: Steven Levy
Why it matters: Before the word "hacker" became associated with nogoodniks who use their technical chops to cause trouble, it was a badge of honor. Nobody documented why better than Steven Levy. In Hackers, he wrote of the Hacker Ethic, a credo which incorporated such noble concepts as "Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position," "You can create art and beauty on a computer," and "Computers can change your life for the better," as well as the more controversial "All information should be free."
Levy's book-published before the computer industry had produced many bona fide celebrities-is the story of the first generation of hackers, as well as spiritual forefathers such the members of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Legends-to-be Steve Jobs and Bill Gates may be in the there, but the real stars are folks such as Slug Russell, the creator of Spacewar, and Lee Felsenstein, the designer of the SOL-20 and the Osborne 1. They may not have made millions, but their contributions to the development of PCs were real-and they lived the Hacker Ethic.
Hackers is a beautifully written, wonderfully humane work; if you want to know what makes geeks tick, it's required reading. Levy, of course, is still one of our finest writers about technology. I plan to buy his next book, In the Plex as soon as it's released-but will probably get it in Kindle rather than wood-pulp form.
Fire in the Valley
Authors: Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine
Still in print? No (the 2000 revised edition has fallen out of print, I'm afraid)
Why it matters: If you can read only one book about the earliest days of personal computers, read Hackers. If you read two, read Hackers and Fire in the Valley. Like Steve Levy's book , this one is a work of history that was written when much of the history in question was still fresh. But while Hackers is the tale of particular players in the personal computing revolution, Fire is a more straightforward, comprehensive guide to major machines, companies, and moments. It's a great place to read about stuff like the creation of MITS' Altair-the first major PC-and the early days of computer stores and computer magazines.
In 1999, the TV film Pirates of Silicon Valley docudramatized the lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and credited Fire in the Valley as its source. It overlapped with only a small chunk of Freiberger and Swaine's work, and replaced their down-to-earth approach with a flashier feel more akin to Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires. The next year, a revised edition of the book brought things up to date with chapters on recent developments such as the creation of Netscape and Steve Jobs' return to Apple. How about a third edition that covers Google, Facebook, Twitter and beyond?
The New Hacker's Dictionary
Editor: Eric S. Raymond
Still in print? Yes
Why it matters: In 1975, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate named Raphael Finkel began keeping track of slang related to artificial intelligence. In 1976, his list made its way to MIT, where it blossomed into the Jargon File, an all-encompassing, ever-growing compendium of slang used by hackers, from the pervasive (bug) to the obscure but fascinating (lithium lick ). Notable contributors included free software god Richard Stallman and Colossal Cave co-author Don Woods.
The Jargon File was first published in book form in 1983, as The Hacker's Dictionary. It returned to print in 1991 as The New Hacker's Dictionary, edited by Eric S. Raymond and published by the MIT Press. Updated versions followed in 1993 and 1996. Like all good reference works, it makes for addictive reading even if you're just browsing rather than looking for something in particular-and you'll come away with a richer, quirkier vocabulary. (If you ever see me refer to Maggotboxes on Technologizer, you'll know why.)
DOS for Dummies
Author: Dan Gookin
Still in print? Yes, amazingly. (I wonder how many copies a year it sells?)
Googleosity: 122,000,000 (for all "for Dummies" references-91,400 for "DOS for Dummies" ones alone)
Why it matters: In 1991, I attended a cocktail party at a computer trade show and met some folks from the book-publishing arm of my then-employer IDG. One of them told me about a beginners' guide to PCs it was about to release. "The title is kind of controversial around the office," he said. "It's DOS for Dummies."
The moniker worked. IDG started cranking out Dummies volumes-computer-related ones at first, and then everything from cars to food to sex. Nearly twenty years later, over 1700 Dummies books have been published by IDG and Wiley, the publishing giant that bought IDG's book division in 2001. You could pretty much live your entire life based on the series. And it inspired both countless TV and movie references and multiple shameless imitators, such as the loathsome Complete Idiot books.
DOS for Dummies (which eventually sold more than a million copies) was written by Dan Gookin and illustrated with cartoons by Rich Tennant. The loose, funny personality was definitely Gookin's-I edited articles he wrote in the pre-Dummies era so I knew his style. It's mimicked in Dummies books of all sorts until this day, and Gookin probably deserves a nickel royalty for every tome ever sold. (He's still writing new Dummies volumes-here's his Droid X one-and Tennant cartoons are still a trademark of the series.)
Author: Robert X. Cringely
Why it matters: Today, for bizarre reasons, there are two writers who toil pseudonymously as Robert X. Cringely-one who works for InfoWorld and one who doesn't. Accidental Empires was written back when there was only one Cringely-the one who doesn't write for InfoWorld. Except that at the time, he did. (Confused yet?)
Steven Levy's Hackers was a book about people Levy admired-at least in some respects-written before very many of them had made vast sums of money. (Microsoft hadn't even gone public yet.) Accidental Empires covers some of the same ground. But by the time it came along, computers had become a far bigger business. Cringely, InfoWorld's gossip columnist, is snarky where Levy was sincere, and treats his subjects as tycoons as much as nerds. And even though his analysis isn't flawless-"Alas, I'm not giving very good odds that Steve Jobs will be the leader of the next generation of personal computing"-it's an entertaining, insightful snapshot of the industry stood at the time. (The early-1990s vibe is strong: Cringely compares Bill Gates to the Emir of Kuwait, and Steve Jobs to Saddam Hussein.)
In 1996, the book was adapted into an even better PBS documentary miniseries, Triumph of the Nerds (which is still available on DVD and is online in transcript form). The TV version was made back when it was possible to convince both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to sit for interviews for a TV program about the history of PCs, and is rife with great sound bites-including this gem.
The Road Ahead
Author: Bill Gates
Still in print? No, but I saw a new (albeit marked-down) copy of the paperback edition for sale at one of my favorite bookstores just this weekend
Why it matters: In 1975, Harvard student Bill Gates and his buddy Paul Allen saw that computers would eventually be everywhere and it would be a good idea to start a company to make software for them. That alone was foresight enough to establish Gates as one of the all-time great tech visionaries. Which is good, because his later, more formal attempts at predicting tomorrow's technology have been spotty at best.
Gates' most extended work of futurism was his book The Road Ahead, co-written with Microsoft research head (and future alleged patent troll) Nathan Myhrvold and journalist/technologist Peter Rinearson, and published at a time when Gates was still in the process of becoming a household name. Helped by a $1 million marketing budget, an Annie Liebovitz cover, and a booming interest among Americans in something vaguely known as "the information highway," it was a bestseller. Fifteen years later, it's an interesting read, in part because Gates' broad ideas about where tech was going were often right, but the more specific he got, the more he was hobbled by an understandable tendency to see everything as a PC. (He devotes several pages to something he calls the "Wallet PC," which-except for the fact it isn't a phone-sounds an awful lot like an iPhone.)
Gates repeatedly downplays his prowess as as predictor of trends in Road, and it wasn't just modesty: The first edition of the book also downplayed the Internet, just as the Internet was becoming the next big thing. He explained, in fact, that the Information Highway was going to be something else entirely. The moment the book came off the presses in late 1995, it was obvious that was a bad call. A heavily-revised 1996 edition emphasized the Net, at the same time Microsoft was doing battle with Netscape for the hearts and minds of browser users; a 1999 follow-up, Business @ the Speed of Thought , was even more cyberspace-centric.
The Road Ahead came with a CD-ROM that included, among other things, a video tour of the Gates family's megahome and a copy of a then-current piece of software called Internet Explorer 1.0. I'd love to express an opinion about it, but my copy of the disc (which I didn't opened until I began work on this article) won't run on Windows 7. (Apparently, it was glitchy even when you used it with Windows 95.)
The book, of course, still works great. There's a lesson there.
The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Author: Eric S. Raymond
Why it matters: In 1997, programmer and open-source software advocate Eric Raymond-the same guy who edited The New Hacker's Dictionary-gave an influential talk about contrasting approaches to open-source development at a Linux conference in Germany. It was titled "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and became the title essay of a book published in 1999.
As defined by Raymond, the cathedral approach to open-source development keeps control of code in the hands of a small group of people. The bazaar approach most famously represented by Linux) allows a far larger, looser team of contributors to participate. The bazaar system has pretty conclusively won out in the years since Raymond spelled out the two systems, and his work played a significant part in its acceptance.
One concrete bit of proof of the importance of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar:" In 1998, Netscape CEO James Barksdale announced that the company was releasing the Netscape code as an open-source project called Mozilla-a move that eventually led to the creation of Firefox. Barksdale specifically credited Raymond's essay with inspiring the unprecedented decision.
...and that's my list of the great computer books. Did I leave out any? Definitely, and I know you'll point them out in the comments.
Here, I'll help get the debate going. Surely The Cluetrain Manifesto should be here, no? How about Ed Yourdon's Death March and/or Fred Brooks' The Mythical Man Month? Maybe Adam Osborne's Introduction to Microprocessors or Tsutomo Shimomura and John Markoff's Takedown or (thinking about recent works) Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code ? Nominate your favorites; I'd love to do a sequel to this story.