By Harry McCracken | Monday, November 29, 2010 at 12:40 am
Writing about music, a famous, impossible-to-properly-attribute saying goes, is like dancing about architecture. In 2010, anyone who dares write a book about computers runs the risk of facing a variant of this conundrum. The Web is so good at conveying information about technology that it’s hard to recall an age when the default medium for any discussion of computers more ambitious than a magazine article was a static, difficult-to-update, not-necessarily-illustrated printed volume.
But that era existed. The best books about computers were enormously successful, and many of them were really good. They deserve to be celebrated.
When I sought out tomes for this list, my goal was to identify ones that were interesting, influential, and of lasting significance. (Two thirds of the ones I ended up picking are still in print, including at least a couple that are theoretically obsolete.) I relied on my own excessive library and solicited advice from my Twitter pals, who both confirmed some of my choices and reminded me of contenders I’d forgotten about. Along the way, I decided not to include works of fiction (someone should write “The Ten Greatest Computer-Related Novels,” but that someone isn’t me).
The earliest book here came out in 1968; the newest one was first published in 1999. I didn’t set out to exclude works published in recent years–it just worked out that way, and even though I’m not arguing that new computer books are obsolete in the 21st century, I think the focus on the past makes sense. (Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is a very good book, but we’ll know it’s a great one if it’s still in print and still being talked about in, say, 2027.)
The works that follow are listed in chronological order. As in “The 25 Most Notable Quotes in Tech History,” I’ve also listed each book’s Googleosity–the number of references to it on the Web, as determined by a Google search. It’s an imprecise but telling indicator of each work’s lasting impact.
Author: Donald Knuth
Published: 1968 (first edition of first volume)
Still in print? Yes
Why it matters: The Art of Computer Programming isn’t exactly Programming for Dummies. For one thing, all examples are presented in MIX, an assembly-language-like programming language of author Knuth’s own devising; to understand this multi-volume work, you’ve got to learn a new programming language which you’re not going to use in the real world. For another, it runs to more than 3000 pages even in its current, incomplete form. But its essential usefulness is reflected in the fact that people still care about it more than four decades after the first release of its first volume. It’s a little as if a car repair manual that originated in the Model T era was still widely read and respected–and was still a work in progress.
And you don’t have to actually read TAOCP–or, for that matter, be a computer programmer–to be fascinated by it. Knuth’s Web site is a treasure trove of intriguing stuff, including his explanation of why he stopped using e-mail twenty years ago, information about his offer of a $2.56 bounty for errors found in his books (and why it’s now paid as a deposit into a fictional bank in an imaginary country), and much more.
TAOCP also led to the creation of an important piece of software. In 1977, unhappy with the quality of the typography in the proofs of the second edition of its second volume, Knuth created TeX, a sophisticated digital typesetting system that continues to be used to this day, particularly for technical publications and those full of mathematical formulas.
Bill Gates once said that anyone who had actually read all of The Art of Computer Programming should send him his or her résumé. But nobody’s yet read it in its entirety, because it isn’t done yet. Three complete volumes have been published to date: volumes one, two, and three in 1968, 1969, and 1973, respectively. All have been released in updated editions, and five fascicles (sections) of volume four have been published in recent years. Knuth says he’s working nearly full-time on volume four these days, has started work on volume five, and may write volumes six and seven. Long may the series–and its author–wave.
Author: David H. Ahl
Published: 1973 (as 101 BASIC Computer Games)
Still in print? After many years of unavailability, it’s back! It was just republished as an e-book
Why it matters: If you used computers in the 1970s, chances were high that you wrote much of your own software in BASIC. Much of the software you didn’t write, you typed in from listings in magazines and books. And no source of BASIC programs was more important than BASIC Computer Games, which was edited by Creative Computing founder David Ahl and was the first computer book to sell a million copies.
The first version was published by Ahl’s then-employer, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the games it contained were designed to run on the company’s minicomputers. The 1978 Microcomputer Edition was beloved by owners of Apple IIs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, Commodore PETs, and other early machines–who not only had to type in the games and stomp out any typos, but also tweak the code as they went to conform to their particular microcomputer’s flavor of BASIC. (TRS-80 owners eventually got a custom version of the book, published by Radio Shack itself; there was also a sequel, which came in both Microcomputer and TRS-80 editions.)
What sort of games did the book include? The classics! Such as Nim, Hammurabi, Mugwump, and–with permission from Paramount–Super Star Trek. (I misremembered the legendary Hunt the Wumpus as being in there as well, but it was actually part of More BASIC Computer Games.) None of them had graphics, unless you count pictures composed of alphanumeric characters, and all were pretty, well, basic. But if you weren’t there, trust me: they were a blast.
Author: Ted Nelson
Still in print? No, sadly (but you can download a PDF of an extended chunk of it here)
Why it matters: Theodor Holm Nelson is most famous as the creator of Xanadu–the original hypertext/hypermedia system, which he’s been working on for fifty years–and for having coined the words “hypertext” and hypermedia” along the way. Xanadu remains unfinished, and, though it rankles Nelson, seems to have been preempted by the existence of the Web.
Computer Lib/Dream Machines, on the other hand, was completed more than thirty-five years ago, and it exudes evidence that it sprung from the same endlessly creative brain as Xanadu. It’s two books in one: Flip Computer Lib (an introduction to computers, with the subtitle “You Can and Must Understand Computers NOW”) around, and it becomes Dream Machines (an overview of computer graphics and hypermedia). Together, they make up a manifesto about the user of computers for creative means that’s still inspiring.
Both “books” consist of brief essays, in a variety of typefaces with handwritten annotations and doodled illustrations. They’re opinionated, full of invented words such as stretchtext and fantics, and remarkably prescient given that Nelson wrote them shortly before the first rudimentary PCs appeared. It’s not just the discussion of hypermedia that’s visionary: He also discusses gesture-based input, virtual reality, undo features, and an array of other things that eventually came to pass, or surely will in the years to come.
Nelson’s book had become something of a historical artifact even when Microsoft Press released a new edition in 1987. Paradoxically, it’s also still a rewarding read for anyone who cares about the future of technology: Just last month, blogger Dave Winer bemoaned its unavailability and tried to jumpstart a new edition . And Nelson continues to write books. His recent Geeks Bearing Gifts, a history of the personal computer, has some of CL/DM‘s playful, poetic inventiveness.
Author: Tracy Kidder
Still in print? Yes
Why it matters: This is probably the most highly-regarded computer-related book ever published–I mean, I love DOS for Dummies, but if it won a Pulitzer Prize or the American Book Award it’s news to me.
Kidder, one of the grand masters of the art of narrative journalism, tells the tale of a group of employees of minicomputer maker Data General and the birth of the company’s Eclipse MV/8000 machine. Soul was instantly acknowledged as a classic, and it’s held up extremely well, whether you consider it a business book or a story that reads like good fiction but happens to be true. If you want to give a behind-the-scenes book about the computer business–or any business–the highest praise, there’s still no bigger compliment than comparing it to The Soul of a New Machine.
At the time Kidder did his writing and reporting, the minicomputer business was booming and Data General was one if its leading lights. When the book was published, the microcomputer revolution was underway. And within a few years, the minicomputer business and nearly every company in it began to crumble. (Data General held on better than most, but it was acquired by EMC in 1999.) All of that brings a certain poignancy to the book when you read it today–but the characters and themes are as pertinent as ever even if the technology isn’t.
Author: Peter McWilliams
Still in print? No
Why it matters: Eight months after he wrote and published The Word Processing Book, McWilliams produced a similar, even better-selling tome called The Personal Computing Book. But The Word Processing Book is the more fascinating artifact. It dates from a period when one of the most common questions people had about computers was “Why should I use one to write rather than sticking to my trusty typewriter?” McWilliams answered the question and recommended specific early-1980s models–from the Coleco ADAM to the Teleram T-3000–but he did so in a profoundly rambling, idiosyncratic style, rife with self-referential asides, jokes, woodcut illustrations, old ads, cartoons, and other supplemental material.
McWilliams wasn’t the first person to prove that how-to prose about computers could be lively and entertaining rather than dry and technical, but his self-published books hit bestseller lists, attracted attention from the mainstream press, and converted doubters such as William F, Buckley. They’re spiritual ancestors of the Dummies series, but with a much stranger, more personal feel. (It’s hard to imagine a large publisher having faith in his uninhibited style.)
For a while, McWilliams was a one-man industry devoted to books about word processing and other aspects of the burgeoning personal-technology industry: He wrote a special edition of The Word Processing Book for KayPro computers, Questions & Answers on Word Processing, and Word Processing on the IBM PC. He passed away in 2000, having moved on to write more general self-help bestsellers such as Life 101. (He also became a medical marijuana activist.) But if there was a McWilliams guide to Word 2010, it would be a good read for sure.
Author: Peter Norton
Still in print? Yes, in a variant called Peter Norton’s New Inside the PC
Why it matters: He no longer writes books or magazine articles. He’s not in the software business, either–and for the last few years, he hasn’t even posed for software boxes. But for a couple of decades, the image of a bespectacled, arms-crossed Peter Norton was synonymous with the fixing of busted PCs.
Norton’s first book was Inside the IBM PC (later known as Peter Norton’s Inside the PC). It was the definitive plain-English, nuts-and-bolts guide to motherboards, processors, disks, other components, and the software the PC used to make them all work together–an enormously valuable resource back in the day when typical PC users had to worry more about their machines’ innards. It went through nine editions and was followed by numerous other Norton books, most of which involved coauthors. (Judging from the experience of a friend of mine who cowrote one of them, writing a book with Peter Norton pretty much meant writing a book–one with a photo of Peter on the cover.)
Norton’s books were bestsellers, but he made his fortune with his software company. He sold it to Symantec way back in 1990, and gradually left geekdom behind for philanthropy, art collecting, and other worthy activities. Inside the PC was last updated in 2002, and while any book about computer hardware written close to a decade ago is by definition horrendously out-of-date, the basic concept remains powerful.