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Ask HN: What book impacted your life the most and how?
120 points by curiousgal on Aug 7, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments

A series of essays and books impacted my life the most. It all started on a sunny day, when I was a structural engineering intern full of hope and a beautiful girlfriend, waiting for my code to run(blah blah iteratively determine deflections of structures with non-linear stress-strain responses blah blah), when I read: https://www.cs.utexas.edu/~EWD/transcriptions/EWD10xx/EWD103...

I quit my job the next day.

This was the beginning of the end. Like with all drugs, there is a slippery slope. You start with marijuana, and you move onto heroin. In my case, I graduated to:

"Formal Methods of Software Design": http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~hehner/FMSD/

After that I read: https://www.amazon.com/Predicate-Calculus-Program-Semantics-...

Now in general I am quite depressed:

* I am very judgemental and look down upon most HN posts, especially the ones that praise Alan Kay, natural language programming, or view programming as a "craft" rather than a "science"; my favourite HN feature is the "hide" button

* I am disappointed with my math education, and tired of all the rabbits being pulled out of hats in my textbooks

* I wish I had enough will power and discipline to write a programming language that is nothing more than predicate calculus, but I don't

I foresee that as a result of these readings, I will die alone, sad, and depressed...oh AND penniless.

I wish I was joking.

That's a pretty huge impact.

Wow you gotta lighten up man. You care alot about stuff that matters only a tiny little, weensy bit.

Get out of the house.

Poor man baby.

Most importantly: Did you marry the beautiful girlfriend?

Nope. Switching fields from something that had a stable pay (civil engineering) to something where I am likely to be homeless (math, especially since I am not a genius), was one of the many nails in the coffin our relationship.

It's the first question that popped to my mind, LOL.

You seem interesting, mail me and let's talk.

hi, thanks! I am not sure why I would be interesting though? Could you share some of your motivation for wanting to talk?

Thank you. I can relate a lot.

> I wish I was joking.

The post surely sounds like a joke, the way it's exaggerated.

For me it would have to be the Michael gerber's Emyth books. It will forever change how you think about business and maybe the world around you.

Followed by sam carpenter's work the system. I think if you're a programmer trying to make it as a business person those two books are the most invaluable.

Edit: about the how part.. Before reading and understanding these books I was always in a kind of firefighting mode. It was like a constant pain in the neck that something was somewhere needed me. Sure i was making money but I was not enjoying it and felt stressed all the time. Plus I wasn't scaling my business because of the constant need of attention from everything. Then I learned the systems thinking and it all started to change.. It was like I felt I had wasted 10 years of my life being stupid before. I'm telling you these two books can forever change your life both professionally and personally if you aren't already doing it.

This may be because I have always admired John Carmack, and because I love video games - although I am drawn to all kind of different book genres, but "Masters of Doom" had a profound effect on me.

I read it every few months, and I have gifted it to family and friends, and most of them loved it as well.

It’s not the writing, nor the story per se that stand out, it’s not just about how it beautiful highlights and highs and the lows of the Johns’s symbiotic relationship and their accomplishments, it’s not even about how their skills, strengths and weaknesses play into their success and failures (which I am sure is typical of most co-founders stories).

It’s about empowering the reader to believe that everything’s possible, and how smart, hard-working people can build technologies that affect the lives of many.

This book works wonders for when I am going through burn-outs, or I am not motivated enough to pursue a problem or a project. When I am done reading the book, I am excited and eager to get back into the game. I can’t recommend it enough.

"How To Win Friends And Influence People" helped me a lot with social skills that are obvious to most people but not to me. It's still something I work on regularly, it doesn't come naturally.

I double this. Listened to the audiobook recently. I've always considered myself quite a communicative person, but only after the book I realized how much improvements can be done here. Still, I find it a bit manipulative, so I would only use the techniques in working environment and stay "myself" and direct with friends.

I have had the same experience. It has always been difficult for me to handle social relationships with others when growing up (I cannot understand how others feel/think about me). "How to win friends" offers an (behaviourism?) insight into what you do can make others feels what. It's like a handbook really!

this is one of few books that i actually read several times in my life.

Meditations is a book I come back to over and over: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.mb.txt

I always think this is the closest thing to a 'Bible for atheists' that I've ever found. Seriously awesome stuff

I've never thought of Meditations as religious or non-religious. It's all about really appreciating what you have and understanding the way you feel is derived from your perception of the world. I think that's pretty universal.

If anyone is interested in a more modern introduction to stoicism A Guide to the Good Life is a worthwhile read: https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Good-Life-Ancient-Stoic/dp/0195...

Not a book, but this essay:


Convinced me that I absolutely wanted to do backbone ISP network engineering on a grand scale. It's taken a while to get to the level of knowledge where one is trusted and confident working on circuits that can take whole countries off the internet if you fuck up, but very much worth it.

That story was awesome! Thank you for sharing it. I read the whole thing over cups of Vietnamese coffee in between bouts of zipping round HCMC on a motorcycle, which felt strangely appropriate.

I kind of love the idea of hacker tourism, and I wish I could find more journalism of this type. A character somewhere between enthusiast/gonzo/reporter on a seemingly obscure quest that leads to unexpectedly deep reflections on the world we inhabit.

Mindfulness in Plain English changed my life. You can read the PDF free here: http://www.wisdompubs.org/sites/default/files/preview/Mindfu...

"Autobiography of a Yogi" [1] - If you grew up with people doing Yoga and Meditation, or at least were exposed to these topics for some time, this book is a great window in that world. It is from a person who brought Meditation and concept of Self-Reliazation to the West [2].

At the risk of being ridiculed, I'll venture to say this: There's a big part of us that we don't fully know. All of us are trying to different things to find happiness. Above book proposes that Meditation has answers to most of the questions and talks about various Yogi's. This triggered a deep desire for me to know more. I learnt Meditation from a different organization and am very happy at where I am. This book started that journey.

Warning: There will be a bit of mysticism in all this. Take what your gut says and leave the rest.

[1] https://www.ananda.org/autobiography/ [2] https://www.yogananda-srf.org/

Sedgewick's Algorithms in C++.

I am a non CS guy who learnt C++ programming in order to do simulation for my final year project in mechanical engineering. I ended up creating a wonderful GUI (MFC) simulation complete with the diagram of the engine etc. For the next 5 years or so as a freelancer developer assisting professors and the like, I created pretty hot shot applications with nifty graphics, UI etc. I began to see myself as a master programmer and thought how easy it is for CS guys compared to Mech guys. Then I picked up this book. I had never known any of what it talked about. The very first example of union find was a revelation. My ego was completely thrashed. I was thoroughly humbled.

As for non technical, it would be The Count of Monte Cristo. I first read an abridged version of it as part of high school curriculum. As a young teen, I was instantly enamored by revenge and adventure. I still long to own a yacht and sail the oceans, if not get imprisoned, or find a treasure, or kill people. I am reading it again at bedtime and Dantes just got locked up at Chateau d'if.

If I have to pick just one, it would be "How to survive without a salary" by Charles Long. In short, it helped me escape the American Rat Race. Most of my life, I was middle class, but I side stepped the typical thing of running faster to stay in place. The poverty I have suffered in recent years would have been worse without the mental models it provides me.

For programming, "Game Coding Complete" by Mike McShaffry and David Graham. The book gave a very nice intro to a number of design considerations and given that McShaffry did a decent amount of game programming in the early days of programming, there are discussions of how they dealt with incredible design constraints. The book served as a good introduction to thinking about performance and size of the software that I build today. The book introduced me to concepts like how hardware could introduce unexpected performance changes. I honestly don't do much game programming at all, but it was a very nice introduction to some otherwise difficult topics. I think that even some experienced developers could get something out of that book.

I was just about to take that to a book reseller today because I haven't read more than a few snippets in ten years....maybe I should hold off on that.

The first few chapters have some really good lessons in them. It isn't really, in my opinion, a great book to read all the way through, but the little stories in the margins are well worth reading.

That's pretty much what I thought about Prometheus Rising also. First few chapters were very interesting, but the rest was just okay.

Not one book - but a series. The Encyclopedia Brittanica. (That's right, the old-school hard bound set of books taking up an entire shelf.)

My 3rd grade class had a set, and I devoured each one. They turned me into a nerd thanks to a teacher who told me to never stop reading.

Boom ditto!

The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. That book taught me to be a decent person.

Since you've mentioned it, I've looked at the free sample. I'm kinda impressed how good it is. I wasn't expecting it to be very well made. In fact I'm buying it now

I bought the entire collection of Calvin and Hobbes.

I'm very sure I'll end up doing the same thing! It's a good book for all ages

"Nicomachean Ethics" by Aristotle. It's easy sometimes to get caught up in the idea of doing things for technology sake or because it would be cool to implement or to make a lot of money. Reading this book really made me start to think about why I'm taking certain actions and the type of person I want to be. While you may not necessarily agree with Aristotle's conclusions on ethics or even some of the premises he starts from (his justification for slavery is notoriously...bad) the Ethics is great example about how to rationally determine the "most ethical" action to take in a situation or at the very least will introduce you to such types of reasoning.

"7 Habits of Highly Effective People" [1] - I listened to the audio book and it was really an eye-opener. It changed my perspective on people and personality a lot. Highly recommended. Same with the book "How To Win Friends And Influence People" [2]. It's written decades ago and still holds the principles true. Another gem I found recently was : "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" by the same author of [2]. It's really good if you are stressed with your lifestyle. Really gives practical advice.

"The Illuminatus! Triology" by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea

I did my first reading in high school and it was absolutely brilliant. I never expected so many twists and turns where characters melt into one another and plots jump from world domination conspiracy theories to self discovery and awakening.

Decades later, I am now looking more into Robert Anton Wilson's other work (in particular Maybe Logic) and am seeing some very interesting applications, especially in software quality and artificial intelligence.

Still one of my favorites. I've reread this book more often than any other and still catch new references in it each time.

If you've never checked out RAW'S audiobook "Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything", I highly recommend it. Lots of meandering talk about most of the concepts that occur again and again in his books.

I haven't checked out Maybe Logic yet, but now I'm curious.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. This is easily the most moved I have been by a book that was equal parts a theory of intelligence and equal parts a realization of how important of an ingredient intelligence is to enable one to be aware of the fact of being 'alive', to have been given a variable amount of intelligence to process this fact for the next 80 years or so and that this variability in intelligence influences how that turns out.

Pretty much the only book that's made me cry uncontrollably.

It was the relationship between biology and intelligence that got me, too, not really on the disability and how he was treated, which was mainly what they focused on in school.

Really made me reflect afterwards. Totally worth it, one of my favorites, and I'm way overdue to reread it again.

The Bible. Probably has impacted the society I live in more than any other book and society in turn has impacted me. It's well-worth reading for a lot of reasons.

Along the same lines, I have enjoyed several times a little book called "Searching for and Maintaining Peace", by Father Jacques Philippe. It gives a Christian/Catholic perspective on how to deal with the troubles of life: fear of being without, fear of suffering, dealing with the suffering of loved ones, impatience with the shortcomings of others, kicking ourselves when we commit a fault, etc.

The short answer is to acquire and maintain an interior peace, no matter what the circumstances. This allows the grace of God to act through us. The book develops this idea from several angles, in about 100 pages.

Harry Potter has better story and better lessons.

Okay there's no need to ridicule someone else out for sharing (as was asked) a book that meant something to them, even if it's a religious text. Your response is just mean-spirited.

The former has stood multiple tests of time and is my number one as well.

Also, FWIW, while Harry Potter is complete fiction, the former is at least partly a history lesson as well.

That said, I enjoyed both and I think some concepts are easier to grasp in Harry Potter.

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. As a scientist, it helped me to realise that the quest for truth is only a tool: I have to choose my own goal.

Edit: I also want to mention "Language in Action" by S.I. Hayakawa. I read it too recently to say that it has had the most impact on my life of any book, but it opened my eyes to orders of magnitude more cases of imprecision in our language than I had ever noticed before.

On a personal level the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins because it explained that "evil" is not evil but "mathematically" inevitable, thus allowing me to find (relative) peace of mind.

On a professional level The Mobile MBA by Jo Owen, because it explained to me - the programmer - valuable management skills in no bullshit way (I can not stress this enough), thus allowed me to grow in my career.

"Shreemad Bhagvad Geeta" - A book that believed to be narrated by God Krishna on lessons of life living in spiritual way.Though it is considered as most religious book in Hinduism, yet proved good for motivation and being a confident in life


Reading "Art of worldly wisdom" as a kid. Still read it often. I find it incredibly useful in interactions with people in almost every facet and I strongly suggest reading it.

"Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas R. Hofstadter

This book changed the way I think.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. Gave me my first glimpses of philosophy at a young age and allowed me to get some perspective on my place in life.

The Rational Optimist.

It helped me realize (along with other things), that no, the world isn't getting worse. Things are much better than they've ever been for most people, and they're only getting better, faster.

The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan.

It showed me that the questions I'd always had were real, and finally let me break free :)

Different books for different ages:

- Discourse on the Method [1], to become a healthy criticist of everything (perfect for your 15's-20's development)

- Beyond Good and Evil [2], a definition of the 20th century craziness by the crazy genius Nietzsche (perfect for your 30's burnout)

- The Praise of Folly [3], to realize that life is just a game (perfect for your 40's post-burnout rehab)

- Propaganda [4], because you want to play the game too (perfect for your 50's meteoric rise to fame & success :).

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_on_the_Method

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Good_and_Evil

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Praise_of_Folly

[4]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_(book)

I read "The five people you meet in heaven" by Mitch Albom. Sure it might be fictional and meant for a younger audience, but this book really changed the way I think. Really makes you realize that every little interaction you have with someone affects that person for the rest of their lives in one way or another; and vice versa.

I like this question for its introspective impact. It is hard not to interpret the question as "If you could recommend one book, which would it be?" My answer isn't one that I would necessarily call a "must read." Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea was simply the right book at the right time for me. It was more about what it led me to discover through more reading and more books than the book itself.

Minds, Brains and Machines by Geoffrey Brown [1] for introducing me to the complexities of the mind-body problem. It did not show the answers of course, but helped me think right about it.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse [2] for contributing to helping me come out of excessive questioning of everything (philosophy) to science that helps towards actually answering the questions answerable.

Feynman Lectures in Physics [3] and Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman [4], with no need to explain "how". :-)

The Ghost in the Atom [5] for explaining varied views on the nature of science, especially Quantum Mechanics, and what goes in the minds of the top-notch scientists working on these problems.

Parsing Techniques by Dick Grune [6] for teaching me the fundamentals of computer science and helping me proceed with my deep interest in Artificial Intelligence.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Minds-Brains-Machines-Mind-Matters/dp...

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Siddhartha-Hermann-Hesse/dp/161382378...

[3] http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Surely-Feynman-Adventures-Curious-Cha...

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Atom-Discussion-Mysteries-Quant...

[6] https://www.amazon.com/Parsing-Techniques-Practical-Monograp...

"Still Life With Woodpecker" by: Tom (fuckin) Robbins!

Defined "Outlaw", a philosophy for dope folk.

Abundance by Peter Diamandis totally changed the way I look at businesses and future technology and helped me clearly see the difference between exponential growth and linear growth changing the world.

Night by Elie Wiesel. It showed me how resilient a human being can be.

"The Beginner's Computer Handbook - Understanding & Programming The Micro" by Judy Tatchell and Bill Bennett


I crafted my first computer from cardboard :) and learned to type and code using hand drawn keyboard :)

Mastery by George Leonard - learning that goal of doing something was not to reach a goal, was the most profound lesson I learned towards enjoying what I do everyday by the way of enjoying the process.

Sur/petition: Creating Value Monopolies When Everyone Else is Merely Competing

Edward DeBono


This is the book that inspired me to start in the world of business.

"Getting Things Done" by David Allen

I've been obsessed with productivity and mindfulness ever since.

The holy Quran number 1

Don't be sad by dr alqarnee

number 1?

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

because the pace of half the book so closely resembles my life, decisions, alternative histories and the limited time we have in the world. not sure how much more I can say without spoilers.

"Fooled by Randomness" by N.N. Taleb.

It showed how big a role chance plays in our lives, and how to make the most of it.

For me perhaps its "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly : http://kk.org/outofcontrol/

As the Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth "The Bible", changes the way I look the world by showing more love and more compassion.

The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo. Inspired me to go after my dreams.

Millennium trilogy. I was a math guy, those books convinced me to be a computer dude.

Care to develop? I was a computer guy before I read them and they didn't struck me as incredibly tech driven. So I'd like to understand :)

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