The 15 Greatest Computer Books of All Time

Macintosh Manual
Macintosh

Author: Carol Kaehler (according to a comment here, in a great post about this book)

Published: 1984

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
The Little Kingdom

Author: Michael Moritz

Published: 1984

Still in print? It finally came back a year ago as Return to the Little Kingdom

Googleosity: 31,600

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
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Author: Steven Levy

Published: 1984

Still in print? Yes, in a recent 25th-anniversary edition; you can also sample large chunks of it on Google Books

Googleosity: 241,000

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
Fire in the Valley

Authors: Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine

Published: 1984

Still in print? No (the 2000 revised edition has fallen out of print, I'm afraid)

Googleosity: 33,200

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

The Hacker's Dictionary
Editor: Eric S. Raymond

Published: 1991

Still in print? Yes

Googleosity: 336,000

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.)

The list is still available online, but the most recent version on Raymond's Web site, 4.4.8, is more than six years old. It lacks now-common terms such as fanboy and pwn, but it's still great fun.

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