The Greatest Computer Books of All Time

Fifteen major works of computing literature, from history to how-tos. Read 'em all!

By  |  Monday, November 29, 2010 at 12:40 am


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

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: 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

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

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.




40 Comments For This Post

  1. SirWired Says:

    K&R 2?

    I'd argue it's nearly as important as Knuth, or maybe even more so. This skinny little tome (still in print, and still sold for an exorbitant price) is the most perfect guide to a computer language I have ever read. Short, to-the-point, and it assumes you are neither an all-knowing genius nor a moron.

  2. tpp Says:

    Absolutely! I read it while in college many, many years ago, and I have yet to read a book about computer languages that competes with it.

  3. Guest Says:

    Two candidates:
    'The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs' – MIT's intro book, published in 1985, turns out to educate generations of advanced developers, through the present, and even the future (functional programming)!

    'The Psychology of Computer Programming', published in 1971, addressing the fact that programs are written by people and that should be a consideration. I'd argue this prefigures and helped start what's now known as 'Agile'.

  4. pond Says:

    There’s a book about programming in Python — I don’t recall the title — that also does a good job of helping you understand programming in general. Python’s still going strong, and the book’s underlying teachings help with other languages too.

    Wish I could recall the title.

    Good list. Lots of nostalgia seeing those covers. Ah, the ‘Macintosh’ book — a more innocent time at Apple, no?

  5. manron Says:

    My three choices would be:

    The "Dragon Book" – "Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools" (Aho, Sethi, Ullman) , the compiler design bible.

    "Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice" (Foley, van Dam, Feiner and Hughes), the computer graphics classic.

    "The Unix Programming Environment" (Kernighan & Pike).

  6. @sblodgett Says:

    K&R "C Programming Language" is the single most important computer programming book ever written.…. My dog eared version one (nicknamed the Bible) saved my life during CS 321 – Data Organization and Management.

  7. Mel Says:

    I second the vote for K&R's "C Programming Language" and I would suggest "Inside Macintosh" as much more important than the Macintosh manual listed.

  8. Manjeet Dahiya Says:

    Yeah, K&R's C Programming Language!

  9. Craig Says:

    I, too, believe K&R's C Programming Language book is more important than most of the books on your list. In addition, you haven't mentioned The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering by Fred Brooks – it ranks right up there with K&R

  10. The_Heraclitus Says:

    I'll second that.

  11. Martin C Says:

    I'd nominate "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges. Fascinating biography with excellent portrayal of the late pre-history of computing.

  12. The_Heraclitus Says:

    I always liked Starting FORTH:

  13. amrothery Says:

    "On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore" by Brian Bagnall.

  14. Steve Johnson Says:

    Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs – Niklaus Wirth
    Programming Windows 3.1 – Charles Petzold

  15. Gonzalo Brusella Says:

    A true "classic" that is missing: The Peter Norton Programmer's Guide to the IBM PC (aka, "The ugly pink shirt" book)
    (In this edition the pink shirt is FAR better than the original)

  16. Henk Says:

    I miss "The mythical man-month" by Fred Brooks. It still beats all courses and certifications in IT-projectmanagent.

    BTW the posting should be titled: the greatest computer books of the distant past

  17. Me, myself and I Says:

    Peopleware, Object-oriented design heuristics, GoF design patterns, and the list could go on. I really don't understand why several of the books are on the list.

  18. nortee Says:

    I have to agree with you on that @ GoF Design Patterns…. Another one that may be of value to a lot of developers out there is "Algorithms: In a Nutshell"…

    Just my 2 cents :)…

  19. funazonki Says:

    Logic, Algebra and Databases by Peter M Gray – you not only get the fundamentals of databases but also how they connect to algebra and logic in a deep way. Given that the crux of the business is data, not algorithms or machines, the rest of the topic is just a series of footnotes to Gray's wonderful book.

  20. Visitor Says:

    The Mythical Man-Month (Brooks)
    Design Patterns (Gof)
    Object-Oriented Software Construction (Meyer)
    Domain-driven design: tackling complexity in the heart of software (Evans)

  21. KenK Says:

    Code Complete? Although perhaps the author did not want to be too programmer heavy…

  22. Patrick Says:

    I also nominate Kernighan & Ritchie – The C Programming Language. For me at least, it was (and is) a powerful influence not just on C but on how to write a book on programming. Maybe there are just so many young programmers out there these days that use Python, Perl etc that they just haven't read it. Even if you have little interest in C itself, the book is a treasure. I still have my 1st edition with the $15 price tag on it. <grin>

  23. Mikka Says:

    DOS Power Tools, Paul Somerson.

    The only Computer Book I ever read cover-to-cover… twice. All the other books in my computer shelves I just use for reference.

    When I was a noob and DOS 3.1 was cool, and the 386 was cutting edge this book helped me understand where it all came from and how to survive with a massive 640-KB of RAM and 20-MB Hard Drive.

  24. Philip Says:

    Structured Programming – Dahl, Dijkstra, Hoare 1972 – the little black book

  25. Bill Says:

    The Architecture of Concurrent Programs, per Brinch Hansen, 1977 (and 1975 papers on Concurrent Pascal) – he invented Classes and thus Objects

    Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation, Hopcroft & Ullman (1970?) – merging Ring Theory and Chomsky's grammar work to make compilers practical

    Software Tools, Kernighan & Plauger (1976) – thinking in terms of software legos

    The greatest book never written was the results of Xerox Parc, "just" a wave of papers in ACM, spawned Ethernet, Mice, & Windows (& PostScript, etc)

  26. Mohammad Elsheimy Says:

    Where's "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Software and Hardware" and "Programming Windows", both by Charles Petzold???!!

  27. Fabio Says:

    Code Complete is the most obvious missing one

  28. Ron Kaye Says:

    THE IBM Personal Computer from the Inside Out
    by Murray Sargent and Richard L. Shoemaker

    Only of historical interest now, but it was a great introduction to the original PC, for those who wanted the technical details.

    Is there a modern equivalent?

  29. John Miller Crawford Says:

    Two must-includes:

    – The Psychology of Computer Programming – Gerald M. Weinberg (1971) – "… the first major book to address programming as an individual and team effort, and became a classic in the field … this book remains a must-read for all software development managers" (J.J. Hirschfelder, Computing Reviews)

    – How to Set-Up and Maintain a Web Site (Original Edition 1994) Lincoln D Stein – The Bible of the first webmasters

    Also getting my vote: Software Tools – Kernighan and Plauger (1976) – not only the fundamental work on "how to write programs that make good tools, and how to program well in the process", but also a joy to read for the lucidity and elegance of its style.

  30. John Says:

    About half of these are sitting on my bookshelf. 🙂 I'd have probably included The Dragon Book and Thinking Forth.

  31. @BillP Says:

    I'm not sure I would have been as successful at computers if not for my first programming text book in college. It was called the "A FORTRAN Coloring Book" by Roger Kaufman.
    It really made learning FORTRAN fun and interesting.


  32. @BillP Says:

    And if you're looking for real nostalgia…
    the first computer book that really made me think about the big picture and the first ever to reference dangers of a computer virus check out the 1977 novel, "The Adolescence of P-1"


  33. ArthurT Says:

    Ahl's Book was of course both widespread and monumental. I found an archive the ported BASIC code, and fired up Hamarabi. But If I were to pick two, aside from the C Programming Language, I would pick: "Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs – Niklaus Wirth " Sheer brilliance, and forever changed the way I coded. Elegance forever! and "The Architecture of Concurrent Programs, by Brinch Hansen, 1977" made accessible the ability to write and understand Operating systems written in Higher level languages. Fundamentally far beyond brilliant, I would say that book was the most influential book since the work of Grace Hopper.

  34. dog Says:

    Timeless successful books:

    Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks
    Design Patterns, GoF
    Peopleware, Tom DeMarco
    Rapid Application Development, Steve McConnell
    Code Complete, Steve McConnell
    Art of Computer Programming, Donald Knuth
    Debugging the Software Development Process, Steve MacGuire
    Computer Graphics, Foley, Van Dam, et al..

  35. Harshit Singhal Says:

    Hey Great list of the top computer books. Being a computer geek I loved it.

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