Eight Best Computer Books

It’s been over five years since I last told you about my favourite computer and programming related books (don’t believe the date on that article. It’s been edited lightly a couple of times since I first posted it).

Having said that, some things have not changed. The vast majority of books on the shelves of your local retailer are very specific. Publishers seem to eschew broad, generally useful texts in preference for yet another beginners guide to Microsoft Word or C++ (or, more likely, Visual C++ 2005 Special Easter Edition SP2). I do not understand this. Sure, there’s a genuine need for “how to” books for specific technologies but is it not more useful to learn how to solve problems in general rather than how to solve a particular problem with a particular product?

Worse, most are not even particularly well written. Deadlines are so strict that authors have to write quickly rather than accurately or well. Ultimately the drive to be the first publisher with the definitive guide on Word 2007 (August Edition) trumps all. One that galls me is that most programming language books assume that you are learning to program from scratch. Is C++ really likely to be your first language? I think not.

The other continuing trend is the size of them. Is it necessary for every book to be a thousand pages long and be stuffed with screen-shots? None of my favourites are like this.

As with the last list, I have not just focused on your typical “computer science” text, if anything I have shied away from them. Hopefully if you go pick up a copy of all these books you’ll find them all to be both useful and entertaining to read.

Additionally, I find most of them to be books that are worth returning to, if not as a reference guide then as something that increased experience make each read make more sense.

So, let’s get to the point. What are my favourite computer books, and why?

  1. Code Complete. If you’re writing or designing software you need this book. As I said last time, it ‘is one of those books that does the job so well it has no obvious competition. It describes the complete coding process right from low level design through to unit testing and, while most people would have been very prescriptive, McConnell outlines the pros and cons of each approach.’ Now on its second edition, it is still, as far as I know, without peer.
  2. The Mythical Man Month. People never seem to learn. Managers still seem to add more staff to already late projects. Brookes said all this, and a lot more, in this book way back in the seventies.
  3. Accidental Empires. Robert X Cringely’s history of the early PC industry is a fascinating and entertainingly written anecdote-fest. He claims neither to be complete nor objective, yet seems to cover all the bases. Since most people these days deal predominantly with x86 architecture machines I think everyone should know the heritage and how we got from Bletchley Park to an iMac. (But without the iMac as it was written years before Apple returned to form.)
  4. Professional Software Development. When I first bought this I was a little annoyed. It’s actually the second edition of McConnell’s ‘After the Goldrush,’ just coming with a different name! I’m not sure that I would have bought it had I known, but I would have missed out. This is the only book of the eight here that talks about the industry as a whole, and how we should move away from the typical, and surprisingly common, “code and fix” development. He talks about certifications; architects; heavyweight methodologies; personality types; and a whole lot more. I can’t say that I agree with every last sentence, but it’s well worth reading just to get a perspective.
  5. Peopleware. It’s amazing to think that it took until the 1980’s before the human elements of writing software were seriously considered. Even now most Computer Science seems to concentrate on the more technical aspects. This book was probably the first to discuss the “human factors” of software development and is still the best that I’ve read.
  6. Programming Perl ((This link is to the third edition. I currently only have the second.)). I include this book at least partially because I wanted to show that it was possible to have a densely technical book that was also well thought out and entertaining. The structure is superb and I can’t think of any other programming tomes that have made me laugh out loud.
  7. In the beginning was the command line… ((You can also download it from Neal Stephenson’s website.)) I think that this is an interesting book for two reasons. Firstly it describes the reason why Unix is as it is better than any other. Secondly, it explains the various major operating systems (and some minor or — now — non-existent ones) in approachable analogies rather than dense jargon.
  8. Conceptual Blockbusting. There are few other professions where your output is almost entirely brainpower. A computer program is really little more than a slightly less ephemeral rendition of pure thought. So if you can’t think your way out of a particular problem you’re in trouble! This book makes you more aware of your own intellectual processes and outlines different ways of approaching problems. Invaluable.

As you may have noticed, many of these books are the same as last time! Does this indicate that I’ve been reading less? A little perhaps, but I’d like to think that it’s because by picking books not related to specific versions of particular technologies I’m increasing my odds of finding the classics.

What do you think? Any other good choices that I missed?