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.

The books I picked & why

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Alan Turing: The Enigma

By Andrew Hodges,

Book cover of Alan Turing: The Enigma

Why 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

Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can't Do

By David Harel,

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

Why 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.

The Innovators

By Walter Isaacson,

Book cover of The Innovators

Why 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.

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

By Michael A. Hiltzik,

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

Why 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.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

By Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths,

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

Why 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.

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