The best books for getting some idea of what computer science is all about

Robert Sedgewick Author Of Computer Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach
By Robert Sedgewick

Who am I?

A lot of people have learned to write computer code, but computer science is something much more. I like to define it as the quest for knowledge about phenomena surrounding computation and the application of that knowledge in the real world. I was lucky to get in on the ground floor in the 1960s and know the impact computer science has had on the modern world. I believe that everyone needs to know something about computer science, so I have spent the last several decades working to teach the fundamentals to as many people as possible. Ironically, embracing technology in this effort has enabled me to reach millions of people.

I wrote...

Computer Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach

By Robert Sedgewick, Kevin Wayne,

Book cover of Computer Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach

What is my book about?

It is unusual to recommend a textbook to a general audience, but our book is pitched at such an audience. We cover the fundamentals, including: learning to write programs in a modern style (with type checking, modularity, and data abstraction); studying classic data structures and algorithms and their performance in practical situations; appreciating fundamental concepts in the theory of computation: (universality, computability, and intractability) and the contributions of Turing, von Neumann, Boole, Shannon, and other giants; gaining insight into how modern computer processors are built (including complete design of a simple processor) in order to understand the strong relationships between computers and the natural world.

The book is written in a conversational style and is more accessible than familiar standard textbooks in other subjects.

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The books I picked & why

Alan Turing: The Enigma

By Andrew Hodges,

Book cover of Alan Turing: The Enigma

Why did I love this book?

I first learned about Turing from Andy van Dam in my first computer science class at Brown, in 1966 (yes, there was a CS class back then—it was one of the first anywhere). I read this definitive biography when it first came out in 1983 and found it fascinating. Much later, when I was organizing the Turing Centennial Celebration at Princeton in 2012, I was amazed to learn that the book was out of print. I mentioned this to Vickie Kearn, a longtime editor at Princeton University Press, and she seized the opportunity to go visit Hodges and get rights to the book. The timing was propitious, because the new movie The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch was also in the works, and the book turned out to be a bestseller.

There is all sorts of technical detail that can be saved for a second reading, but the story of Turing’s life is not to be missed

By Andrew Hodges,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Alan Turing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER The official book behind the Academy Award-winning film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades--all before his suicide at age forty-one. This New York Times-bestselling biography of the founder of computer science, with a new preface by the author that addresses Turing's royal pardon in 2013, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life. Capturing both the inner…

Book cover of Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can't Do

Why did I love this book?

Turing’s great contributions, arguably the most important scientific contributions of the last century, are universality (all computers have the same power) and computability (there are limitations on that power—problems that cannot be solved). Harel does an outstanding job of explaining these and related concepts in layman’s terms.

Learning Turing’s results from the original paper (as I had to do in that 1966 class) requires sophistication and experience in mathematics, as it is couched in mathematical notation that can be impenetrable. But one of the amazing outgrowths of Turing’s concept of universality is that we can choose to express it in any reasonable formal language. Harel deftly takes advantage of this fact in this engaging treatment.

We have used this book and its predecessor for decades as supplementary reading in our introductory course at Princeton.

By David Harel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Computers Ltd. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Computers are incredible. They are one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, dramatically and irrevocably changing the way we live. That is the good news. The bad news is that there are still major limitations to computers, serious problems that not even the most powerful computers can solve. The consequences of such limitations can be serious. Too often these limits get overlooked, in the quest for bigger, better, and more powerful computers. In Computers Ltd., David Harel, best-selling author of Algorithmics, explains and illustrates one of the most fundamental, yet under-exposed facets of computers - their inherent…

The Innovators

By Walter Isaacson,

Book cover of The Innovators

Why did I love this book?

In this treatise, Isaacson answers the question “How did we get here?” with fascinating detailed storytelling about the most important contributions and contributors to computer science. It is a definitive reference work—-if you want information about someone or something related to computer science, you can use the index to this book as the springboard to an engaging and interesting story.

The book opens with an illustrated timeline that neatly summarizes what is to come. It really is worth reading the book cover to cover to get full context on how the digital revolution really happened (admittedly, there are plenty of details that can be safely skimmed). Particularly fascinating are the ways in which these people connected with and influenced each other. From Turing to Steve Jobs, the story is a seamless web.

This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.

By Walter Isaacson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Innovators as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Following his blockbuster biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovatorsis Walter Isaacson's story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and a guide to how innovation really works.

What talents allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their disruptive ideas into realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail?

In his exciting saga, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He then explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution,…

Book cover of Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age

Why did I love this book?

Turing taught us that a simple model suffices to describe computation and Shannon and von Neumann taught us how to realize that model. But what is the relationship to the world in which we live? Sure, the first computers were useful in wartime to do the calculations needed to launch ballistic missiles and crack codes, but could they do anything useful for the rest of us?

In the 1970s, computing as we now know it was conceived and implemented by a small group of researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). This book tells the story of that effort.

One of the many amazing stories about PARC that I often relate to is this one: When faced with a corporate directive to use a certain computer when they knew they needed to use a different one, several of the researchers decided to build a new computer from scratch, in a matter of months. Then they used that one to design and build a new one, the Alto, the forerunner of the personal computers we use today. The effectiveness and efficiency of careful computational thinking in bringing about change were astounding.

I was fortunate to spend two stints on sabbatical at PARC in 1978 and 1979 and can attest to the fact that this was a unique and stimulating research environment, beyond anything I’ve ever seen, before or since. Yes, there are a lot of names and dates in this book, but this is an exciting story.

In the famous words of Alan Kay, these people were inventing the future, and they knew it.

By Michael A. Hiltzik,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dealers of Lightning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of brilliant computer eccentrics were thrown together by Xerox at the Xerox PARC centre in Palo Alto, California. These people created inventions such as the first personal computer, the graphic user interface, the mouse and one of the precursors of the Internet. However, the bosses at Xerox never really appreciated these men or their innovations, and accused them of just fooling around. Then along came the outsiders, such as Steve Jobs of Apple Computing, who left the PARC with ideas that they would later exploit and make vast fortunes on, propelling them to…

Book cover of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Why did I love this book?

Perhaps the most important reason to learn something about computer science is that it develops a way of thinking that can serve us well in everyday life. Christian and Griffiths give a host of examples in this fascinating book, many of which you will find surprising.

There is a lot of computer science here, explained in terms of familiar situations in daily life. It is probably the most accessible of the books on this list. If you read it, you will learn about numerous classical algorithms.

More importantly, this book drives home the fundamental concept that computer science is not necessarily just about computers. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that understanding computation is one key to understanding the world around us.

By Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Algorithms to Live By as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of how computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives.

In this dazzlingly interdisciplinary work, acclaimed author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths show us how the simple, precise algorithms used by computers can also untangle very human questions. Modern life is constrained by limited space and time, limits that give rise to a particular set of problems. What should we do, or leave undone, in a day or a lifetime? How much messiness should we accept? The authors explain how to have better hunches and when to leave things to chance, how to deal…

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