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

DOS for Dummies

Author: Dan Gookin

Published: 1991

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.)

Accidental Empires

Author: Robert X. Cringely

Published: 1992

Still in print? Yes, and you can sample it on Google Books

Googleosity: 33,400

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

Published: 1995

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

Googleosity: 398,000

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

Published: 1999

Still in print? Yes (and it’s available in an evolving online version, too)

Googleosity: 60,900

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.

More tech nostalgia on Technologizer:

The Ones That Didn’t Make It: Windows’ Failed Rivals


The 13 Greatest Error Messages of All Time

The 13 Other Greatest Error Messages of All Time

Apple Rumors: The Early Years

The Golden Age of Electronic Games




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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