The best computer books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about computers and why they recommend each book.

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Computers Ltd.

By David Harel,

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

This book provides a brief introduction to the concept of algorithms before discussing the limitations of computation. Specifically, Harel explains undecidable problems (that is, problems for which no algorithm exists) and infeasible problems (that is, problems for which only algorithms are known that have an exponential runtime). I like this book (and its splendid title) because of its focus on the limitations of computation. Harel does a marvelous job in explaining two difficult topics about computation. The understanding of any scientific discipline requires the understanding of its limits, and the limits of computation are as significant as they are surprising.


Who am I?

I’m a professor of computer science at Oregon State University. My research focus is on programming languages, but I also work on computer science education and outreach. I grew up in Germany and moved to the United States in 2000. Since computer science is a fairly new and not widely understood discipline, I am interested in explaining its core ideas to the general public. I believe that in order to attract a more diverse set of people to the field we should emphasize that coding is only a small part of computer science.


I wrote...

Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing

By Martin Erwig,

Book cover of Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing

What is my book about?

According to popular culture, computer science is all about coding. This is a tragic misconception that deters many creative students from exploring the field while at the same time disappointing those that only want to code.

At its core, computer science is the science of systematic problem solving, which critically involves the design of representations and their transformations. A precisely described method for solving a problem is called an algorithm, and computation is the execution of an algorithm. My book emphasizes that everybody uses algorithms (and thus computes) all the time—often without a machine, and it explains the major topics of computer science based on everyday examples and well-known stories, without the need to learn how to code.

Software Tools in Pascal

By Brian Kernighan, P.J. Plauger,

Book cover of Software Tools in Pascal

This book (an update to Software Tools by the same authors) codifies and instructs the principles by which the Unix / Linux toolset was designed. It emphasizes clear, robust code, and the building of tools, reusable, general purpose software components that can be hooked together to solve many kinds of programming and data management tasks. The lessons it teaches are timeless, and the current generation of programmers would be well served to try and learn them.

The original Software Tools was perhaps the single most influential software book that I ever read. It taught me how to think with the Unix mindset, how to make the best use of what the Unix system (and now Linux) offers, and how to focus on readability and maintainability in my own software.


Who am I?

I am a professional software developer and technical author, with a number of books published by O’Reilly and Prentice Hall. I have been working in the C / C++ / Unix / Linux world for over four decades. I am also the maintainer of the Free Software Foundation’s GNU Awk interpreter for the awk programming language. I have a passion for writing clear, correct, efficient, and portable code, and for applying the UNIX and Software Tools principles in my development. I hope that this book list will help you climb the learning curve of doing great Unix / Linux development.


I wrote...

Linux Programming by Example

By Arnold Robbins,

Book cover of Linux Programming by Example

What is my book about?

Assuming that you know only the C programming language, this book teaches you the fundamental Unix / Linux Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).  Based on industry standards, it helps you learn how to write correct, readable applications that deal with files, processes, signals, user information, and more. It brings example code from original Seventh Edition UNIX programs, as well as from more modern GNU programs, so that you can see how the APIs are used in real programs, and not just in toy examples.

2001

By Arthur C. Clarke,

Book cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey

What if an alien race shepherded humans from hunter-gatherers to space farers? What would be the next step in that process? While speculating on those questions, Clarke gives us a realistic vision of human habitation in Earth orbit, on the moon, and a voyage to Saturn managed by an artificial intelligence. In the background of the novel, tensions build between the United States and Russia. I first read the novel in the early 1980s as the Voyager mission visited Jupiter and Saturn and the Space Shuttle program got underway. At the time, this felt like a tale that could happen. In fact, it still could happen if you imagine a somewhat more distant year in the title.


Who am I?

After watching the moon landings as a child, I've long wondered when humans would visit a world beyond the moon and what that would be like. This led me to explore novels that imagine space travel. What's more, I pursued a career in astronomy so I could do my part to explore worlds beyond the Earth. Exploring the solar system and worlds beyond our solar system raises many questions. Some are practical, like how do we get there? Some involve what we'll learn and how the experience of visiting these worlds will change us. The books I recommend explore these themes from several different perspectives.


I wrote...

The Solar Sea

By David Lee Summers,

Book cover of The Solar Sea

What is my book about?

In the year 2074, Jonathan Jefferson became the last human to set foot on the planet Mars. Nineteen years later, Natalie Freeman violated presidential orders and brokered peace in the Middle East. The year is now 2098. Thomas Quinn discovers particles near Saturn that could provide unlimited energy to Earth. The Quinn Corporation builds a solar sail spacecraft commanded by Jefferson and Freeman to investigate. Along the way, they stop at Mars and Jupiter and find wonders and dangers beyond their imagination. Step aboard the Solar Sail Aristarchus and sail the solar sea.

Code

By Charles Petzold,

Book cover of Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

This book is an awesome deep dive into the way the computer hardware and the low-level software systems of computers really work. As a programmer, this was extremely interesting to me. It was fascinating to see how computers evolved over time and how the programming we do today is built on top of so many other concepts and ideas.

This book was super fun to read and I couldn’t put it down. I like doing the exercises and thought experiments and really didn’t want the book to end. By the end of the book I felt like I really understood how the underlying hardware worked and I found many useful ideas I could apply to my work as a software developer.


Who am I?

I love to expand my knowledge and learn not just about new technologies, but how things work. I find it fascinating to dig deep into computer programming, technology concepts, and really geek out on things. That’s why I love software development or programming books that aren’t just about some technology and how to do something, but rather books that really make you think and teach you not just programming skills but critical thinking about problem-solving skills. As a software developer for over 15 years and a person who teaches software developers, I have learned that if someone isn’t entertained, they aren’t learning. That’s why I put together a list of fun, entertaining and useful books.


I wrote...

Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual

By John Z. Sonmez,

Book cover of Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual

What is my book about?

For most software developers, coding is the fun part. The hard bits are dealing with clients, peers, and managers, staying productive, achieving financial security, keeping yourself in shape, and finding true love. This book is here to help.

Soft Skills: The software developer's life manual is a guide to a well-rounded, satisfying life as a technology professional. In it, developer and life coach John Sonmez offers advice to developers on important "soft" subjects like career and productivity, personal finance and investing, and even fitness and relationships. Arranged as a collection of 71 short chapters, this fun-to-read book invites you to dip in wherever you like. Soft Skills will help make you a better programmer, a more valuable employee, and a happier, healthier person.

Computer Vision

By Richard Szeliski,

Book cover of Computer Vision: Algorithms and Applications

Richard’s authoritative leading textbook excellently describes the whole field of computer vision. It starts with the sensor, moves to image formation followed by feature extraction and grouping, and then by vision analysis. It’s pragmatic too, with excellent descriptions of applications. And there is a ton of support material. This is a mega textbook describing the whole field of computer vision.


Who am I?

It’s been fantastic to work in computer vision, especially when it is used to build biometric systems. I and my 80 odd PhD students have pioneered systems that recognise people by the way they walk, by their ears, and many other new things too. To build the systems, we needed computer vision techniques and architectures, both of which work with complex real-world imagery. That’s what computer vision gives you: a capability to ‘see’ using a computer. I think we can still go a lot further: to give blind people sight, to enable better invasive surgery, to autonomise more of our industrial society, and to give us capabilities we never knew we’d have.


I wrote...

Feature Extraction and Image Processing for Computer Vision

By Mark S. Nixon,

Book cover of Feature Extraction and Image Processing for Computer Vision

What is my book about?

Computer Vision now helps society in many ways: we use face recognition on our phones and we can identify plants too (though we sometimes get fined when our number/ license plate goes past a camera too quickly). The advance has been due to faster computers, cheaper memory, better sensors, and better techniques. Back in 1997 I and Alberto found that no book covered feature extraction in-depth, so we rectified that. Our book is pretty much the only one describing computer vision via techniques for finding and describing shapes and structure. Many of these now find use in the systems applied in medicine and in industry – and in current deep learning-based systems. I’ll next be listing some of the great books that have moved this fascinating field forwards.

The New Hacker's Dictionary

By Eric S. Raymond,

Book cover of The New Hacker's Dictionary

The New Hacker’s Dictionary is the foremost compilation of the first fifty years of hacker lore, combining hilarious anecdotes and definitions to illuminate a hugely-influential but wildly-misunderstood culture more similar to beer-brewing monks than black-clad criminals. Though last updated in 1996, the technology, terms, and theories explained within still underlie the modern Internet, making this dictionary a dual cultural and architectural blueprint for anyone interested in how computing got to the present moment—and how to build a better future.


Who am I?

Jeremy N. Smith is the author of three acclaimed narrative non-fiction books, including Breaking and Entering, about a female hacker called “Alien” and the birth of our information insecurity age. He has written for The Atlantic, Discover, Slate, and the New York Times, among other outlets, and he and his work have been featured by CNN, NPR, NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, and Wired. He hosts The Hacker Next Door podcast and lives in Missoula, Montana.


I wrote...

Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called Alien

By Jeremy N. Smith,

Book cover of Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called Alien

What is my book about?

This taut, true thriller dives into a dark world that touches us all, as seen through the brilliant, breakneck career of an extraordinary hacker, a woman known only as Alien. When she arrived at MIT in the 1990s, Alien was quickly drawn to the school's tradition of high-risk physical trespassing: the original hacking. Within a year, one of her hallmates was dead and two others were arraigned. Alien's adventures were only just beginning.

The Closed World

By Paul Edwards,

Book cover of The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America

Edwards revealed how the very architecture of early computers owed a debt to the political structures of the Cold War. The innovation of a command/control/information infrastructure set the template for military regimentation, and subsequently for the surveillance society we currently inhabit. The story of how cybernetics—a field that never quite made the grade as pure science—nevertheless conquered the culture, is fascinating.

Who am I?

I am an economist who came to realize that the marketplace of ideas was a political doctrine, and not an empirical description of how we came to know what we think we know. Science has never functioned in the same manner across centuries; it was only during my lifetime that it became recast as a subset of market reality. I have spent a fair amount of effort exploring how economics sought to attain the status of a science; but now the tables have turned. It is now scientists who are trained to become first and foremost market actors, finally elevating the political dominance of the economists.


I wrote...

The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics

By Philip Mirowski, Edward Nik-Khah,

Book cover of The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics

What is my book about?

This book is a history of how American economists sought to incorporate “information” into their theories of choice and markets. Far from being driven by psychology or philosophy, we argue most of the options were borrowed from the natural sciences. The version which eventually became dominant by the late 20th century was prompted more by the politics of neoliberalism than by any logical or empirical considerations.

The book illustrates my larger interest, which is to explore how claims to know something are often rooted in a curious admixture of science and politics. I continually find that the supposed separation of science from politics rarely holds up in history.

Recoding Gender

By Janet Abbate,

Book cover of Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

The first software programmers, or coders for computers, were women. Abbate, a professor at Virginia Tech and author of Inventing the Internet, recaptures the vital role of women programmers at the dawn of digital computing, when in the 1940s and 1950s women often handled what was then viewed as an anonymous task of creating the coding for computers to carry out operations.

“Employed as technical experts from the very beginnings of digital computing,” Abbate writes in her penetrating study, “women were inventing careers and professional identities at the same time that the field took shape.” By the 1960s, when computing spread, men began supplanting women as frontline programmers, a trend that resulted in the software becoming male-dominated by the end of the 20th century. Because women now flock to code writing, and are becoming once more central players in the creation of software, Abbate’s history illuminates a neglected…


Who am I?

The author was the chief Silicon Valley writer for The Wall Street Journal during the first of the 1990s. He went on to become an acclaimed scholar in the history of science, engineering, and innovation. At the peak of his journalism career, the Boston Globe described Zachary as the most talented reporter on the Journal's staff. Zachary went on to write technology and innovation columns for The New York Times, Technology Review, and Spectrum magazineZachary has also taught courses on science and technology studies at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and Arizona State University, where he was a professor from 2010-2020. He lives in northern California. 


I wrote...

Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft

By G. Pascal Zachary,

Book cover of Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft

What is my book about?

Showstopper is an epic techno-scientific creation story, about the making of a complex and sprawling piece of computer code by a team of code writers at what was the iconic software company in the 1990s, Microsoft. The narrative follows an ensemble cast of characters through their trials and triumphs in constructing a breakthrough program called Windows NT, versions of which remain of value today, notably in the field known as cloud computing. At the time of publication in 1994, Showstopper was widely reviewed: called “a compelling tale” by Newsweek, “riveting” by Harvard Business Review and  “gripping” by Fortune magazine. remains in print. With the passage of time, Showstopper gained a cult following among code writers, both because of how the book captures life on the frontlines of computing.

Why Software Sucks...and What You Can Do About It

By David S. Platt,

Book cover of Why Software Sucks...and What You Can Do About It

This book changed my entire perspective on writing the UI and UX of great software. Even the revised edition is a bit old but still has many valuable lessons to teach. Platt established many of the fundamental principles of writing usable and transparent software, and his book should be read not only by designers, but perhaps especially by programmers.


Who am I?

I have been coding for over 30 years. I’ve seen some miserable interfaces, and some large programs that collapse under their own weight. Software was, at one point, notorious for being late, over budget, and unreliable. These books have helped turn the corner on these failings, and I have found each of them very valuable in my day-to-day programming. While you can learn technique and even languages online, the kind of insight found in these books is rare and worth spending time and money on.


I wrote...

Git for Programmers: Master Git for effective implementation of version control for your programming projects

By Jesse Liberty,

Book cover of Git for Programmers: Master Git for effective implementation of version control for your programming projects

What is my book about?

Git for Programmers comprehensively equips you with actionable insights on advanced Git concepts in an engaging and straightforward way. As you progress through the chapters, you'll gain expertise (and confidence) on Git with lots of practical use cases.

After a quick refresher on git history and installation, you'll dive straight into the creation and cloning of your repository. You'll explore Git places, branching, and GUIs to get familiar with the fundamentals. Then you'll learn how to handle merge conflicts, rebase, amend, interactive rebase, and use the log, as well as explore important Git commands for managing your repository. The troubleshooting part of this Git book will include detailed instructions on how to use bisect, blame, and several other problem-handling techniques that will complete your newly acquired Git arsenal.

ADA Byron Lovelace & the Thinking Machine

By Laurie Wallmark, April Chu (illustrator),

Book cover of ADA Byron Lovelace & the Thinking Machine

Picture books are a unique genre because there are really three people who participate in telling the story – the author, the illustrator, and the children who are reading and/or listening. With each page turn, ADA Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine brings us to another time and allows us to become part of that history – a time before computers and other electronic devices proliferated our lives and before women in science were accepted. The lush illustrations and the lyrical text capture my heart each time I read this book, and I love how we get a small peek into the life of the main character’s famous parents, Lord Byron, and Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke.


Who am I?

As a child, I loved stories about people who accomplished extraordinary things – I read our set of encyclopedias from cover to cover. Those first forays into research stood me in good stead when I started writing nonfiction picture books about people who believed that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it – people like Robert Goddard who climbed a cherry tree when he was 13 and looked at the moon and decided he was going to build a vehicle that could take people there. As a teacher and as a parent, I read picture books on a daily basis, and as a writer for children, I love sparking the curiosity of young readers.


I wrote...

From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves

By Vivian Kirkfield, Gilbert Ford (illustrator),

Book cover of From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves

What is my book about?

In a time when people believed flying was impossible, the Montgolfier brothers proved that the sky wasn’t the limit. When most thought horseback was the only way to race, Bertha and Karl Benz fired up their engines. From the invention of the bicycle to the first liquid-fuel propelled rocket, this collective biography tells the stories of the experiments, failures, and successes of visionaries who changed the way the world moves and sparks the curiosity of young children to think about what they might invent to make the world a better place.

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