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What is the single most influential book every programmer should read? (stackoverflow.com)
244 points by krn on Feb 28, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 103 comments

Hard to argue with any of the books in OP's post. The ones that I have read (at least half of them) are great. If I had to pick one, it would be the Rhinocerous book, simply because Javascript is everywhere.

I've been a professional programmer for many years, but oddly, programming books, as good as they often are, have had surprisingly little affect on me. I've learned much more about programming from working on projects, other programmers, and websites about the technology at hand.

Programming has always come naturally to me, but business hasn't. So since the original question is "most influential book" and not "most influential programming book", I would prefer to mention some of my favorite business books. They helped me become the programmer I am much more than any programming book.

  Differentiate or Die - Jack Trout
  Art of the Start - Guy Kawasaki
  Controlling Software Projects - Tom DeMarco
  You Can't Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar - David Sandler
  Carnegie - Peter Krass
  Do More Faster - Brad Feld and David Cohen
  Founders at Work - Jessica Livingston
But if I had to pick only one:

  How to Get Rich - Felix Dennis
because it got me to dreaming, it's so much fun to read, and for the line, "If it flies, floats or fornicates, always rent it - it's cheaper in the long run."

Oh man... the Rhino is a good reference, but lacks all kinds of best practices and essential style pieces.

Between 'proper' OO style, short circuiting on falsey assignment (var a = b || "default"), checking existence to avoid errors ( if (myObject && myObject.getJSON()){//block to deal with JSON} ) and the DOM, I feel like this is only useful to look up the Date() and Math() methods.

Sorry, just griping because it was the first 'real' programming book I got, and I feel that it misled me for quite a while. </rant>

I wonder why they don't add the <rant> tag to the HTML5 standard.

Most of those books wouldn't interest 99% of programmers.

I think it's more startup founders who also have to have a foot in the business side of things. Sure people who just program don't need to know that stuff.

"Differentiate or Die"

Sounds like the punchline in a math joke.

Or possibly an anime, like Read or Die.

+1 on the Felix Dennis book, I read it whenever I'm feeling unmotivated. Its a great way to get your head out of the 9-5 mindset.

Just a note, I've switched from "Art of the Start" to "Reality Check" from Guy Kawasaki as my favorite, practical starting a business book. I think RC covers most everything in Art of the Start plus more.

I loved that book by Dennis! It's a very enjoyable read that I could not put down. Very inspiring.

I wrote one of the books on the list, Foundations of Programming. It's a free ebook, largely focused at .NET developers. I'm also finishing off a more focused follow up (on github, https://github.com/karlseguin/Foundations-of-Programming-2).

The reception of the book, and the company people sometimes place it with, has always been humbling.

I'm generally not a huge tech-book reader. It isn't how I like to consume such material, but I see the value. To me, Peopleware was likely the most influential book. This is probably largely because I read it relatively young - when I was easier to influence. I also spent the first part of my career in a Microsoft world, where many, many tech books are (or at least were) little more than reference bibles - regurgitating content found on MSDN.


I'd also like to point out that, as an amateur tech writer, The C Programming Language was very influential. Such a perfectly written, simple and useful book.I used to read it every year, and was amazed at how much content was contained within its pages, and how easy it was to understand.

I'd also be sad if I didn't mention some of _why's work, the most influential to me was his Shoes manual.

K&R is one of my favorite books, too. It's probably one of the only programming books that I like to read purely for leisure and enjoyment. Often, when novice programmers ask me if they should learn C, I say yes, not because I'm sure it will help them in their careers (though I feel it does), but because it will get them to read and enjoy K&R.

In order, up to 20 votes:

Code Complete 2nd Ed -- Pragmatic Programmer -- SICP -- K&R -- Refactoring -- CLR -- Design Patterns -- Mythical Mammoth -- TAOCP -- Compilers (Dragon Book) -- Head First Design Patterns -- G.E.B. -- Effective C++ -- Programming Pearls -- Code (Petzold) -- Working Effectively With Legacy Code -- Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance -- Peopleware -- Clean Code -- Coders at Work -- Surely You're Joking -- Effective Java -- Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture -- Little Schemer -- The Inmates Are Running The Asylum -- Why's Ruby -- Practice of an Agile Developer -- The Elements of Style -- The Art of Unix Programming -- Joel on Software -- Modern C++ Design -- The Design of Everyday Things -- Test Driven Development -- How To Win Friends And Influence People -- Agile Software Development -- Domain Driven Design -- The Practice of Programming -- Don't Make Me Think -- Writing Solid Code -- Pragmatic Thinking And Learning -- Software Estimation -- Foundations of Programming -- Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs -- The Passionate Programmer -- Facts And Fallacies of Software Engineering -- Getting Real -- The Story About Ping


Why is it "depressing"?

These are the top books chosen by the whole community. The all-time most influential book is _Code Complete_? What's with all the Agile? Multiple books on design patterns? More books about the profession of being a developer --- and, in particular, a BigCo developer --- than about the most interesting aspects of designing programs.

These sorts of questions are a popularity contest. Books aren't upvoted based on how influential they are, but based on how many voters have read and liked them. So _because_ it is chosen by the whole community you can expect a book like Code Complete: it touches on some of the fundamental principles of programming and is a book that almost every programmer can learn from. This works well for SO I think.

Plus Jeff Atwood said it was his favourite book.

I would be very interested in seeing your top ten list of books that every programmer should read, tptacek. First, because I value your opinion, and second, because I honestly believe that most of the books on this list actually are books that every programmer should read and I'm curious as to why you're so averse to them. What would you consider 'a book about the most interesting aspects of computer programming'? Do books like SICP and 'Introduction to algorithms' not fall in this category?

Of the books on that list, the ones I think you could call legitimately essential are:

SICP -- K&R -- CLR[1] -- Design Patterns -- Mythical Mammoth -- TAOCP -- Compilers (Dragon Book) -- Effective C++[2] -- Programming Pearls -- Peopleware -- Little Schemer[3] -- Modern C++ Design -- The Practice of Programming[4]

[1] ... except I'd recommend Skiena instead of CLR.

[2] ... except I'd recommend Effective STL over any other Meyer book, and I also wouldn't concede that C++ is essential.

[3] ... except I'd recommend Lisp In Small Pieces, which I know is a totally different book, but do you need it and SICP?

[4] ... but only to someone new to programming.

You can see I've chucked all the methodology and career crap (except for Brooks and Peopleware; I think you probably already know everything in Brooks, but Peopleware is something you should reread annually).

To that list I might add:

On Lisp -- Javascript: The Good Parts -- Pattern Oriented Software Design #2[1] -- Computation Structures -- Computer Architecture (Hennesy and Patterson) -- C Interfaces and Implementations -- The Visual Display Of Quantitative Information -- Windows Internals[2]

[1] ... this book was wildly* ahead of its time and is no doubt overlooked because of it's patterns-y enterprise-y marketing.*

[2] ... 10 years ago I'd have recommended _The Magic Garden_ but, even though I'd rather eat a bug than use a WinAPI system full time, it's hard for me to argue that Unix kernel design is as relevant now as the Windows kernel --- and, more importantly, there's no Unix book that does as good a job as Russinovich on the Intel architecture.

I wish I had good books to recommend on:

SQL performance optimization -- distributed systems -- compression and coding -- the HTML/JS DOM programming model.

The reality is, at this point in my career, I don't find myself going to books for programming stuff so much; that doesn't mean I don't read, but I tend to take the "man pages" approach. So my choices may date me. If I'm going to pick up a book today, it's going to be for something domain specific. I find myself reading for maths (I suck at math), or for graphics, or for market microstructure, or signal processing. I won't pretend that stuff is relevant for everyone. I feel confident, though, in saying that nobody needs more than one "Agile" book.

I'm currently reading and preparing to work through C Interfaces and Implementations based on your recommendation - so thanks. At first blush, I like it very much and wish to tie it more closely to a more modern C reference that is the successor to K&R (which doesn't seem to exist).

Skiena instead of CLR? Hmmmm . . . not sure I'll agree with that.

You might want to consider having a look at the Stepanov Elements of Programming book. I think there is a chance it could be a good follow-up for hackers interested in moving from Hanson's elegant looking code to a nice, minimal C++. I lack enough applied C/C++ experience for this recommendation to have much weight.

Regarding SQL optimization - I suspect most people would be best served to work through Celko's books to have the most thorough grounding in applied SQL and then refer to the docs included with their RDBMs of choice that deal with access plans, performance monitoring, and general engine tuning. The problem is that there are just too many knobs built into the different RDBMs products for it to be a general topic. Oh, and the answer is always a better index, materialized view, or to use a column store engine. :-)

Counterpoint: Elements of Programming is an exercise in overengineering written by architecture astronauts. I was not impressed by it.

I've had both CLR's Algorithms book and Skiena's on my wishlist for a while, and would be curious to hear why you prefer Skiena's.

I had a copy of CLR back in school, but like most of my textbooks from back then, I'm sure I sold it for food. Before rebuying the same book, I figured I'd see if Skiena's might be better.

Wow, Computation Structures looks like an excellent book; thanks for the reference.

I think having Lisp in Small Pieces and SICP is reasonable. Lisp in Small Pieces dives pretty deep, but doesn't cover anything comparable to what chapters 3 and 4 of SICP do.

What do you think of Zawodny and Balling's High Performance MySQL? I thought it did a really good job on optimizations for not just MySQL, but many things in common to various SQL systems.

He has one list in his profile: http://amzn.to/cthr46.

Yeah, I've seen it. It's a good list, but it's mostly concerned with security, reverse engineering and similar topics. I'm not saying that this is not important but surely there are other things that a developer should know about. For example, how to write maintainable code, how to come up with elegant solutions to certain problems, and so on.

I bought some of these books because you hear the same titles over and over again, so I had to see what the fuss was about. Code Complete was one of them.

In no way did I find it enlightening. I found it to be straightforward, dense, and boring.

I'd be interested to see a list that separates responses from the "Windows people" and the "Unix people." Hopefully that doesn't sound elitist, I just feel like they are completely different worlds sometimes. Most of the Joel/Atwood/SO fans seem to fit this archetype, and CC is their favorite book.

As runjake points out[0] elsewhere in this discussion, the actual question is different: If you could go back in time and tell yourself to read a specific book at the beginning of your career as a developer, which book would it be?

Given that, the choices make sense to me.

[0]: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2273050

Have you actually read CC?

Another point: Which books deal with "the most interesting aspects of designing programs" in your opinion?

I've been a software developer since 1995. Take a wild guess as to whether I've read Code Complete.

I don't think it's a bad book.

CC is a good book that's not steeped in programming terminology and is easy for even laypeople to understand. However it would've been nice for Steve to incorporate some code snippets from a functional language, just to compare and contrast how things are handled differently between paradigms.

I agree with the missing parts of the book (btw: anyone interested in that might find "Programming Language Pragmatics" by Michael Scott interesting), however, I think that there is not enough experience on using functional programming languages in an industrial/professional setting.

SICP, The Art Of Unix Programming and The Little Schemer are on the list. Those are the only books I've read that actually influenced my approach to program design. What other books do you feel belong there?

Arguably GEB?

Edit: Nevermind, GEB is on the list too

I like GEB, but I find it hard to pretend that it's really an essential programming title.

Mythical Mammoth

Is this a quirky, alternate title? :-)

A lot of these books, while they may be useful, have a reputation that exceeds their contents. Reminds me of "cult classics" in film.

Also, I can't help but wonder how many people are recommending books they haven't read.

Sorry to get statistical, but if you filter for the highest-reputation items of any category X, then most of them are likely to have a reputation that exceeds their actual value, due to reversion to the mean. So this shouldn't surprise you or discourage you from reading these books.

The New Hacker's Dictionary served as my whirlwind tour of programming culture, and was one of the first computer-related books I read. Either directly or indirectly due to this book, I ended up: using Emacs, learning Lisp, learning LaTeX, reading (portions of) Knuth's Art of Computer Programming, contributing work to the GNU Project, and generally went on to enjoy programming more than I think I would have otherwise. I didn't learn how to program from this book by any means, but I think it played a notable role in how I developed as a programmer.

That said, the book is woefully outdated, with the last printed edition being published in 1996, and a lot of the topics it covers were kind of old in technology timelines even then.

Neuromancer by William Gibson. Single handedly (bookedly?) got me interested in how the Internet worked and how computers work. It also gave me an unshakable belief that programming was somehow cool.

It's fiction, but there's nothing wrong with that!

"Snow Crash" by Neil Stephenson is also an amazing read that has a better technical grasp on the growing technology. "Neuromancer" is amazing and all, with some really brilliant passages, but it was composed on a typewriter and Gibson had relatively little experience with programming or computers. Stephenson's work is like a mix between a coherent William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon - strangely prophetic ideas shown in complete detail with such conviction as to make it almost ironic.

> but it was composed on a typewriter and Gibson had relatively little experience with programming or computers.

I have a hard time seeing this as a negative. If he drew from knowledge about real-life computers, we'd all be snickering at the dated references.

I enjoy Snow Crash (more as brain candy), but the reasons for doing so have absolutely nothing to do with how accurate the descriptions of technology are.

Snow Crash was always considered to be Stephenson's best work but I thought Cryptonomicon and Anathem were far better.

If you like Snow Crash, I definitely recommend checking out Daemon (and its sequel FreedomTM) by Daniel Suarez. Just found them recently, and they're fantastic.

In my opinion the daemon was just one big deus ex machina. It definitely is not in the same league as Snow Crash.And I don't think Suarez had a very good sense of tension. The book is fast-paced, but it never takes a break. And the protaganist was poorly written. He basic had no control over events in the story, he just responded to the antagonists actions. But it seems to be popular on Amazon, and I haven't read the sequal.

In the programming category, I'd definitely have to say the pragmatic programmer.

Written in a way that makes it very easy to understand, especially for relative newbies, it's not technology bound, encourages good practices and fosters curiosity. In short, it's timeless.

This should be required reading for any junior hire imo.

The actual question in the body of the SO post is different and evokes a completely different answer from me:

If you could go back in time and tell yourself to read a specific book at the beginning of your career as a developer, which book would it be?

In this case, I'd probably have to go with a book that wasn't even directly about programming -- like 4HWW, Never Eat Alone, or How To Win Friends...

Because looking back, the meta is more important that styles, conventions & code.

The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles[1][2]


[1]: http://www1.idc.ac.il/tecs/

[2]: http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Computing-Systems-Building-Pr...

The Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder.

To me, a kid in junior high school at the time, it was an introduction, an inspiration...and a warning about how thrilling programming and computers could be while at the same time driving you completely insane.

I can't get enough of early computing history.

Steven Levy's Hackers is the definitive tome on this, and you can't really be an educated hacker without being at least familiar in passing with the events in the book.

I'm a fan too. We probably need another topic with lists of hacker history books and/or sites (like folklore.org or doteaters.com).

I'd say every programmer should read 1984 by George Orwell, to always keep in mind the big picture implications of their work.

When I first read it, I got shivers: "this book is about google!"

And after Amazon deleted the very same book from every Kindle remotely ... you could not ask for a more ironic example of how well Orwell predicted things.

> When I first read it, I got shivers: "this book is about google!"

If you read it again today, you would think it's about Apple.

Code Complete is the top item over on SO, its my choice, and it was recently reviewed on hn-books: http://hn-books.com/Books/Code-Complete.htm

I tried really hard to ding the book, but it had such a big impact on me and others when we read it that I really couldn't. McConnell knocked one out of the park with CC.

I've read it twice, and the second time it still made a difference.

Excellent book.

BTW, it's interesting that when I posted the review on hn, I thought it would get a great reception, but a couple of folks said they found the book tedious and dull. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2263127 I really wish those guys would elaborate a bit, because Code Complete is one of 2 or 3 books that everybody seems to like and recommend.

Alan Kay has a great list of recommended reading: http://www.squeakland.org/resources/books/readingList.jsp

It's very broad by comparison with most lists of this nature. Here is a HN discussion of Kay's list: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=664324

Tragically locked - I'd add "Real World Haskell" to the list. Completely changed the way I write code, in a way that books that more directly advocate readability and testability failed to.

One that I am surprised to not see mentioned (here at least as opposed to stackoverflow) is

4 Steps the Epiphany - http://www.amazon.com/Four-Steps-Epiphany-Steven-Blank/dp/09...

As a technical founder and general programmer + startup person, I was always told that sitting in my room coding more and more features wouldnt help a startup succeed but this is the first book that both explained exactly why that was true and what I should be doing instead.

Its not a "read this and your startup will succeed" by any means, but its the most useful and practical book along those lines I have read.

It is because it isn't relevant to developers in general. Not all developers aspire to be entrepreneurs

How to win friends and influence people, Carnegie.

If anyone is put off by a snake-oil, slimy, manipulative impression from that title... Don't be. Give it a try anyway, it's not what you think.

I always found the title offputting but I'm glad i looked past it; it contains lots of great social advice and anecdotes, not a recipe for becoming an unctuous car salesman type.

Let me second that! The book teaches it's reader to be a kind, polite, and considerate friend to people you meet every day. It's a life changer - especially if you're of the shy persuasion.

AWESOME book. My dad gave it to me when I was 12 or so and it made a huge impression on me.

I would not get along very well with people all around me - in the home, school & everywhere else.

Then my sister gifted it to me on a relatively long, boring journey and I finished a major portion of it as a better person.

TL;DR - This book tells you to be genuinely interested in people instead of just manipulating them for your own selfish gains.

This, more than any other book, technical or otherwise, made me a much better freelancer/consultant.

It sucks that so many of those books are not available in ebook format, I would have thought programmers would be leading the way in ebook adoption.

I own Code Complete, and have for a year or two now yet I've not even got 1/4 of the way through it. I enjoy the book but I can't take it out of the house because it's too big, and I can't lie down and read it, because it's too unwieldy.

Code Complete is available at Safari Books.

Available for purchase at Oreilly's site: http://oreilly.com/catalog/9780735619678/

If you create an account, they have a buy one get one free ebook deal running all the time.

Awesome! Can't believe I didn't see that earlier, I did Google it a number of times but from memory all I got was torrent spam.

Thanks heaps!

The answer to this question depends a lot on in what stage of programming maturity you are.

I remember the exact moment I "got" what a class in C++ was. It was a true relevation. Even though I had been programming for a few years it wasn't until I was 19 that I fully understood the concept of a class.

I can definitely say that I was a different programmer after that day. It was like leveling up in an RPG.

It took me a few more years to get object oriented design...

Yeah, maybe I'm a slow learner (although I have seen enough of other people's code to conclude that I'm not alone) but the point is that at different stages of my journey to learn the programming craft I have been open to different ideas and insights.

I don't think there's one book that alone would have taken me all the way.

I'd just like to brag that I still have my Code Complete first edition. One day it'll be worth millions of microdollars, mark my words.

Code Complete is a great read. I recommend rereading it annually to make sure you don't stray the course. I do not recommend reading it anally. Bad lighting.

It seems like a great book for folks just getting started, but I read it after I had a few years under my belt, and all the advice seemed either really basic or far too specific to the C++ Windows world. I can't imagine re-reading it.

Outside of a dog, a book is a mans best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

I'm sure you could pick up quite a few bitcoins with it.

I plan to keep it.

Nothing really surprising about this list. I think it's interesting that programming languages and algorithms are both covered, but operating systems is absent. I've long been looking for a good book about operating systems, but all the popular ones (e.g. "Operating Systems Concepts" by Silberschatz) seem overly verbose. Does anyone have a good recommendation in this area?

I'm about to start working through these 4 books Joel Spolsky recommends for any good programmer: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/414779/what-should-a-self...

SICP and K&R also happen to be up on that thread's list.

For one book, it's The Mythical Man-Month.

Widely read, far beyond programming. Quoted everywhere. The inspiration for agile development. Beautifully, incisively written. Nails everything.

The author not only was a programmer, but headed up the largest commercial project ever taken of any kind, that bet the company (the most influential computer company, IBM).

I'd be really hard pressed to pick just one, but I agree with most of the higher ranked selections on the first page of the SO thread. I didn't drill down any further, but there was some good stuff there.

Of the ones I didn't see, I'd throw out:

The World Is Flat - Thomas L. Friedman

Enterprise Integration Patterns - Gregor Hohpe & Bobby Woolf

Thinking in C++ - Bruce Eckel

I've read some of the books listed, but the two books that completely changed how I write code weren't---_Writing Solid Code_ by Steve Maquire and _Thinking Forth_ by Leo Brodie. The second one is by far the more mind bending of the two, and it's available online (for free) if you search for it.

Programming Erlang: Software for a Concurrent World

While I don't use Erlang, I found this book to be full of very practical and accessible examples. Erlang is a pretty elegant language (IMO) and pretty easy to read after learning pattern matching.

I agree. I haven't done Erlang since 2009, but reading through that book taught me a lot about functional programming theory, state mutation concepts, parallelising code properly and many other things. Definitely not a book for beginners to programming but I think that an individual with at least one language under their belt will get a lot out of it. It's a very easy read considering the myriad topics covered.

I'll throw something recent into the mix: Land of Lisp. Build a HTTP server, DSLs for producing HTML and SVG, a quirky game, and then combine all 3 to build a quirky web-based game that renders the game board using SVG. And that's just scratching the surface. Lisp and LoL make programming fun.

See also: _why's (Poignant) Guide to Ruby, Nobody Knows Shoes.

I started so far back that the only thing written down was TAOCP. A book on Simula 67 would certainly have influenced me had I known about it. The mythical Man-Month, dated but still a good read. Sedgewick, Algorithms, although there are newer and fatter books. I guess meta books got me to think more about the art than did core technical books.

It was Godel, Escher, Bach that got me interested in computer science in the first place. Good to see that in the list.

Crucial Conversations is the book that I'd most like my younger self to read, but it didn't exist back then. However, if we're allowed to time-travel, I'd probably switch to something with lots of detailed stock quotes. :-)

I was surprised to find 'Purely Functional Data Structures' so far down the list.

I'm kind of surprised it even made the list. It fills a very small niche currently, and has a more academic flavor than the more popular books on the list.

I think it will increasingly come to be recognized as important, as functional programming becomes more popular. I hope so at least.

The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich - http://amzn.to/ep7taj

It's not a programming book but I quit my job 2 weeks after I read it :)

And then what did you do? What do you do now?

I created a startup, wrote a book (http://bit.ly/1i5ede), started my own consulting company (i.e. freelancer), short sold a house, screwed up my credit, got married. Hmmm... Overall, things went well :) More details on my blog http://j.mp/fzrhOF

I think it was an attempt to hide affiliate links.

Yes but they are also cleaner and I can track clicks, for example if you go to http://bit.ly/ikAlLF you will see how many people clicked each link. What can I say, I love stats.

The Success Manual - Actionable summaries from 200+ Most useful books. http://thesuccessmanual.bighow.com

why not throw this up on kick-list.com and invite the community to contribute?

unfortunately code complete is not available for kindle yet.

you really are not missing much, it was a tautological snooze-fest.

Code Complete 2

'The Elements of Computing systems' by Nisan & Schocken

To truly understand the machine and the software layers on top of it

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently holistic detective

Rework, getting real, 4-hour work week and more. Check out the list here http://bit.ly/ikAlLF

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