There’s a whole class of books on technology that are histories of some system or software or some-such that are not at all technical. However, in every case below I found myself highly motivated to write code and/or create a software system after (often during) reading these books. I hereby present my favorite inspirational technical books that are not technical, with no particular order implied.
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
This was the first of this type of book that I read. An undergraduate CS professor recommended this and the next and I read them both over winter break. This is probably my all-time favorite book of this type. It was highly inspirational to me during college.
This book was also recommended by my professor and I found it riveting.
Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing by Thierry Bardini
Sadly Engelbart is rarely remembered and when he is it’s for the wrong reason. He was a visionary amongst visionaries of his time and most of his more radical ideas are still relevant and hardly realized even today.
One Jump Ahead: Challenging Human Supremacy in Checkers by Jonathan Schaeffer
A difficult book to find, but worth every penny.
John Carmack’s story is astonishing and this book was the first that really made me stop reading numerous times because I was motivated to create code immediately.
Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing by Randall Stross
While the book is often claimed to be biased, I liked it much better than any of the other Apple folklore books. How NeXT was funded, created, and run was a distillation of the pre-2nd-coming Steve Jobs — ego-driven to the max.
This one is probably my second favorite in that class of books. There are too many to count and most tell the same stories from slightly different perspectives.
iWoz by Steve Woziak
A book about a fun dude doing what he loved and changing the world. Very inspirational.
Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology by Eric Drexler
This skirts the line between inspirational book and manifesto, but it’s too good to keep off this list.
Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
Ditto. Also, very relevant to today’s tech climate.
Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software by Scott Rosenberg
Am amazing story about a system that may have been too big for its software team to create, or maybe about one that was too far ahead of its time. I’ve been on both types of projects and this book hit very close to home from both angles.
The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by M. Mitchell Waldrop
A panoply of the biggest names in computing working to augment the human mind. It never happened of course.
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael Hiltzik
The climate of Xerox Parc in its heyday must have been an amazing place to be.
Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham
I miss circa 2002 Paul Graham.
Various essays on Alan Kay, available for free. Some are great reads.
Fire in the Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine
The stories about companies other than Microsoft and Apple are my favorite, especially those containing Lee Felsenstein.
A book about smart people thinking hard about hard problems.
The Brain Makers by HP Newquist
A good book, but somewhat stilted. I found it inspirational mostly to learn more about the history of AI and its key players.
This is kinda my thing… probably more technical than the others, but this is my list and I’ll bend the rules as needed.
Basically a distillation of Elgelbart -> Alan Kay -> Bret Victor thinking. Reading this will make you wonder what on earth happened to the promise of the computing industry — and hopefully do something to try and fix it.
What are your favorites? Recommendations always welcomed.