Ever find out one of your friends hasn’t read “Neuromancer” or doesn’t know what a Babelfish is or why it’s important to keep a towel handy at all times? Did you have that brief moment where you thought, “Man, it’s like I don’t even know you?”
If you’re going to work in tech, write code, or just spend way too much time on Engadget, Lifehacker, and BoingBoing, there’s a certain amount of reading that goes with the territory. And I’m not just talking about O’Reilly books here. Discovering “Snow Crash” or geeking out on crypto history teaches us part of the language we all share in tech. (Plus, it’s just really fun.)
From classic sci-fi to programming bibles and productivity hacks, we’ve collected the best of the best. See how many of the 50 Books Every Geek Should Read you’ve polished off, or pick your favorite category and start working your way through the rest. And be sure to let us know if we’ve missed any.
“Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson
Here’s all you really need to know about Snow Crash: First, it’s awesome. You can’t argue with a sci-fi world where the Mafia runs the world’s greatest pizza delivery operation, and delivery men drive heavily armored vehicles to ensure that they make good on Uncle Enzo’s guarantee to the customer. You just can’t. No. Stop. Seriously. Don’t even try.
“Neuromancer,” William Gibson
What Snow Crash was to 3D worlds, Neuromancer was to Cyberspace. In fact, the terms cyberpunk, cyberspace, jacking in, etc. are all straight out of Neuromancer.
“I, Robot,” Isaac Asimov
1. A robot may not harm a human or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey all orders given to it by humans, except where this would conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must preserve itself, except where this would conflict with the first or second law.
Asimov invented both the three laws and the word “robotics,” and “I, Robot” was one of the first stories to make serious use of both of them. Sadly, the fourth law: “A robot must not allow Will Smith to appear in a movie about it (and screw the first three laws if they get in the way)” was cut by Asimov’s editor.
“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams
A few geek culture infractions can be tolerated… Forget the name of that big waddling robot in Star Wars (it’s Gonk), and we’ll let that slide. Tell us you haven’t gotten to Snow Crash yet, and we may just confiscate your geek card for a while. But we’ve got to draw the line somewhere, so here it is: If you’ve never heard a line of Vogon poetry, heard tell of a substance that tastes “not quite entirely unlike tea,” or learned what number is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, I’m afraid we’ll have to destroy your geek card entirely.
Anyway, if you haven’t read Douglas Adams’ classic comic sci-fi series, don’t panic. Just do us these couple favors: First, don’t let anyone know that this happened. And second, grab yourself a copy of Hitchhiker’s immediately and start reading. If you can get through the first three chapters without laughing out loud at least twice, we’ll give you your money back.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Philip K. Dick
‘Cause it’s Blade Runner. And ’cause Philip K. Dick does trippy dystopic fiction better than anybody.
“Ender’s Game,” Orson Scott Card
Every geek starts out as just a smart little kid. And Ender’s the smartest of them all. Faced with attack by an alien race, the nations of the earth draft the best and brightest children of a generation and send them to Battle School – an orbiting station where they fight zero-g laser tag battles and learn space combat and command while other kids are going to kindergarten.
Ender’s journey isn’t just about saving the world and learning military and leadership strategies. It’s also about growing up as a smart kid.
“The Time Machine,” H.G. Wells
Because you don’t get any more classic than the novel that coined the phrase “time machine.”
“Microserfs,” Doug Coupland
“Generation X” is the book that made Coupland, but it’s “Microserfs” was where the author truly got inside the heads of a generation of coders. ‘Serfs follows Daniel Liu and a group of his friends at Microsoft as they leave the Redmond giant and head to Silicon Valley to form a startup of their own. It captures the spirit of the time (the dawn of the multimedia era) perfectly, and if you’ve ever worked in IT or software development, you’ll feel like you’ve known all of these characters – hell, you might even be one of them.
“Flatland,” Edwin A. Abbott
“Flatland” might just be the coolest thought experiment ever. Imagine a two-dimensional world, populated with living geometric figures. How would they interact? What would happen if they met a three-dimensional being? That’s “Flatland.” Sure there’s some Victorian society social critique in there, but that kind of thing happens when you’re reading sci-fi from 1886.
“1984,” George Orwell
Honestly, pretty much everyone should read this one, but the omission’s even more glaring if you’re in tech. If we have to tell you what 1984’s about, you’re going to Room 101.
“Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley
The antidote to every shiny, optimistic, how-cool-is-the-future sci-fi novel, “Brave New World” warns of what we might lose while gaining so much from technology.
“iCon,” Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon
Steve Jobs actually banned all copies of books from iCon publisher Wiley and Sons from the Apple store after this unauthorized account of Jobs’s return to Apple came out. So you know it’s gotta be good.
“iWoz,” Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith
Steve Wozniack’s autobiography drives home just how amazing some of the hacks that made the original Apple computers work were. Woz is an interesting dude, but the vanity-project, mostly-unedited writing style of iWoz makes it a tougher read than you’d like. Thankfully nothing about that weird relationship with Kathy Griffin made it in.
“Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire,” Jim Erickson
Is Microsoft’s legendary founder a genius coder or a business genius who understands code? Many believe the latter, and you’ll find out why in “Hard Drive,” which follows Gates from a little company called Traf-O-Data that he started in high school, through dropping out of Harvard, writing Altair Basic, buying CP/M, and turning Microsoft into the giant it is today.
“The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” Edward Tufte
OK, maybe “read” isn’t quite the right word for this one, but Tufte’s packed more amazing info-design rules and examples than you could imagine into this book. You’ll never look at a crappy Powerpoint presentation the same way again. (Actually, you won’t even want to look at them after this.)
“Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,” Steve Krug
Packed with diagrams, screen shots, and case studies, “Don’t Make Me Think” shows you how to do exactly that – to avoid slowing visitors down with design that simply doesn’t work.
“The Non-Designer’s Design Book,” Robin Williams
Another book with a perfect title, Williams’s primer walks those of us without design degrees through the principles of great design.
“Tog on Interface,” Bruce Tognazzini
Say what you will about Mac OS, but it introduced UI design concepts that hold true even today, and Bruce Tognazzini was one of the people behind them. Tog drives home the importance of concepts like Fitts’s Law and explores the challenges inherent in different types of UI.
“User Interface Design for Programmers,” Joel Spolsky
Programmers are not designers. But programmers who understand design are much better equipped to write apps that are fun to use. Spolsky’s helped a generation of coders learn what it takes to build an efficient UI.
“Revolution in The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made,” Andy Hertzfeld
The story behind the development of the Mac, told by the engineers that actually built it. The first-person accounts in Revolution in the Valley are mostly Hertzfeld’s, and they evolved in super link-heavy form on folklore.org where they’re still available today. Drop by and brush up on your old-school Mac trivia, or just have fun killing a few minutes paging through this bit of tech history.
“The Soul of a New Machine,” Tracy Kidder
Both a chronicle of tech history – Data General’s race to design a competitor to DEC’s VAX – and an examination of tech workplace culture, “The Soul of a new Machine” will feel very familiar to anyone who’s worked late nights and weekends to get a product done on time.
“Where Wizards Stay Up Late,” Hafner and Lyon
Essential history of how the Internet grew out of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency network (ARAPANET). You won’t find much about Al Gore in here, but you will get to dig into lots of neat little details like how the @ symbol was chosen for e-mail addresses.
“Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age,” Michael A. Hiltzik
Bill Gates once famously told Steve Jobs that “we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.” “Dealers of Lightning” tells the story of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center that developed the mouse, the laser printer, hypertext, Ethernet, and WYSIWYG word processing, before spectacularly letting other companies steal most of them away.
“The Cuckoo’s Egg,” Cliff Stoll
Stoll’s story begins with a $.75 accounting error and ends with the capture of a German hacker trying to penetrate U.S. military networks. Stoll’s hunt eventually involved the FBI, CIA, NSA, and lots of military computers still using default passwords.
“The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness,” Steven Levy
Almost more than you ever wanted to know about the design of the most successful digital music player on the planet.
“Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time,” Dava Sobel
Geeks will be geeks, even in the 1700s. John Harrison’s obsession with the problem of longitude led to great advances in time keeping and navigation. And it’s a fascinating story.
“The Code Book,” Simon Singh
Comprehensive, engaging, and full of amazing stories and sample decryptions, “The Code Book” is everything you could ask for as an intro to cryptography and code breaking. Plus, if you read it on a commute, there’s a good chance you’ll get to spend a suspenseful work day wondering how exactly Kasiski cracked the Vigenere cipher for really long keyphrases. Good times.
“Cryptonomicon,” Neal Stephenson
Sure, this one probably belongs in sci-fi, but Stephenson’s novel about a team of hackers working to build an island-based data haven draws its inspiration from real-life events: The cryptographers at England’s Bletchley Park, Haven Co’s operation on Sealand, etc.
“Crypto,” Steven Levy
Cryptography’s a tough business. And before Ron Rivest, Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, and Ralph Merkle came along, it was a damn near impossible business for anyone outside of government agencies. Levy recounts how pioneers like Diffie and Hellman brought cryptography out into the public, and developed the systems that make secure Internet transactions possible.
“The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master,” Andrew Hunt, David Thomas
“Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction,” Steve McConnell
“Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software,” Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, John M. Vlissides
These three books belong on the shelf of any programmer. “Code Complete” and “Pragmatic Programmer” are both chock full of advice that will help you clean up your software, write better code, and waste less time doing it. “Design Patterns…” digs even deeper into object-oriented design, cataloging successful approaches you can apply to your own projects.
“Dreaming in Code,” Scott Rosenberg
How many of the classic software development mistakes can one team make? I don’t know, but at times it’s looked as if the engineers behind Mitch Kapor’s “Chandler” were trying to find out. Scott Rosenberg chronicles the first 3 years of the project as they attempt to build an open-source successor to Kapor’s legendary Lotus Agenda PIM (Personal Information Manager). (Chandler finally released a 1.0 version on August 8th.)
“The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering,” Frederick P. Brooks
Everyone working on software should read this book. Brooks explains why most software projects continue to fall behind, why adding bodies to a team doesn’t always make things go faster, and how to handle specifications, documentation, and code freezes.
“Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think,” Andy Oram
The title pretty much says it all for this one: Some of today’s top developers explaining how they think about problems. If you’ve ever written code, you’re sure to find bits of yourself (and more than a little inspiration) here.
“Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric S. Raymond
Raymond coined Linus’s Law: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” in this essay on open-source development approaches. It’s one of the most persuasive arguments for the public open-source coding style used by the Linux kernel project, and one of the reasons many collaborative development efforts use a similar, bazaar-type approach.
“The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson
Wired editor Chris Anderson looked at Amazon sales and Neftflix rentals and saw the future of media: Big hits remain important, but there’s more money than ever to be made from niche titles – books, music, movies, etc. discovered and purchased by a select few.
“The Future of Ideas,” Lawrence Lessig
How should copyright change, or should it disappear entirely if we’re to get the maximum benefit out of our net-connected lives? Law professor Lawrence Lessig (not quite the Bob Loblaw of our times) looks at the history of copyright and argues that much more intellectual property should end up in the commons.
“On Intelligence,” Jeff Hawkins
Palm founder Jeff Hawkins explores thought, AI, and why the way we develop computers today won’t lead us to AI that works.
“In the Beginning was the Command Line,” Neal Stephenson
Stephenson brings his unique style to the evolution of operating systems and interfaces, looking at everything from why Windows is so popular to why some of us still prefer to work from the command line.
“Code: Version 2.0,” Lawrence Lessig
Who controls what in cyberspace? And more to the point, who should control what? Lessig tackled this topic in 1999 with “Code” and later updated it to the wiki-edited, Creative-Commons-licensed, “Code: Version 2.0.”
“The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki
Surowiecki argues that large populations often make better decisions and predictions than experts, a seductive idea in an increasingly networked world. That alone wouldn’t be news, but in Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki explores which types of decisions crowds are good at making, and what elements you need to create a wise crowd.
“The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” Ray Kurzweil
In Kurzweil’s vision of post-humanity genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics combine to help humans create super-intelligent and durable versions of ourselves. From anyone else, this would belong in the sci-fi section, but Kurzweil makes a compeling case that we’re headed toward a point (the singularity) where the future of humanity becomes unrecognizable.
How STUFF Works
“Gödel, Escher, Bach,” Douglas Hofstadter
Melding math, music, and art, Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach” is a singular exploration of the work of the title figures and, through them, of thought itself.
“Gut Feelings,” Gerd Gigerenzer
This is one of my sentimental picks, but it’s part of a larger point: If you’re ready to geek out on a subject, you outta be willing to find a source that’s deeper and more technical than mainstream fare.
And that’s just one reason that “Blink” is for sissys… Ever wonder where Gladwell got the idea for his rapid-cognition pop-nonfiction masterpiece about experts unconsciously leaping to better conclusions than they can work out in their heads? Well, it mostly came from the research behind Gigerenzer’s “Gut Feelings.” Gigerenzer shows you why the stuff in “Blink” works by getting at the evolved capacities that make rapid cognition possible.
Normally I’m happy for a writer of Gladwell’s talent to translate some dry academic writing into something normal people can read, but as it turns out, Girerenzer’s an engaging writer, too. Do yourself a favor and go straight to the source.
“A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking
GraphJam is probably right about the stats on how many people have actually read this one, but those who do find a remarkably comprehensive and digestible summary of physics from one of the smartest human beings on the planet. At least buy a yourself copy so that you can claim you’re planning to read it.
“Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” Paul Graham
Graham explains the hacking mentality like no other, relating it to everything from painting to playwriting and wondering what a new generation of hackers will make out of this medium.
“The Evolution of Useful Things,” Henry Petroski
Petroski crafts an appealing enigineering history looking at how and why everyday objects from the paperclip to the fork came to be designed the way they are.
“Getting Things Done,” David Allen
The book that spawned a productivity movement, “GTD” and the 43 Folders-type followers it’s created have helped a generation of procrastination professionals to, well, get things done. Thousands of life hackers agree: David Allen has helped make efficiency cool again.
“Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better,” Gina Trapani
There’s something recursively screwed up about this, but even after hacking your life to within an inch of its, um, life, you probably won’t have time to catch all the cool tips on Lifehacker. The second edition of Lifehacker’s tips book collects more than 100 tips you won’t want to miss.
Whether through Creative Commons Licensing, an online writing process, or the simple passage of time, many of the books on this list are available online. Here’s where to find them:
“Flatland” – Available lots of places, since it’s now public domain. Here’s one of the better locations.
“Revolution in The Valley” – Began its life on folklore.org, where it continues to live on.
“In the Beginning Was the Command Line” – Stephenson’s essay’s widely available online, and continues to live at the site for one of his books.
“Code: Version 2.0” – Was written and edited in wiki format and is available under a Creative Commons license at codev2.cc.
“The Future of Ideas” – The other Lessig book on our list is similarly available under a Creative Commons license.
“The Cathedral and the Bazarr” – Raymond’s essay on open source and hacker culture can be found on catb.org.