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Inspirational technical books that are not technical

Jul 7, 2015

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.

The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage by Cliff Stoll

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.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner

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.

Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made by Andy Hertzfeld

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.

Points of View: A Tribute to Alan Kay

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.

Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age by Steven Levy

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.

History of Programming Languages, Volume 1 and Volume 2

This is kinda my thing… probably more technical than the others, but this is my list and I’ll bend the rules as needed.

The New Media Reader

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.


16 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Brian Marick

    No love for Levy’s /Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution/?

    That book inspired me enormously. Gave it to my parents for Christmas, with note “This explains me.” I don’t think they read it.

  2. I have read “Hackers…” but don’t remember much about it.

  3. Would Godel, Escher, Bach count as non-technical? I’m halfway through reading it and I almost can’t put it down. It’s made me look at some aspects of software engineering in a whole new way. Plus, it’s just great fun to read.

  4. @Geoff

    I didn’t put it, but happily accept it. :)

  5. I loved “One Jump Ahead” and recommend it to students all the time. I’ve been meaning to read “Dreaming in Code” for some time. Maybe that time is now.

  6. Hugh

    Would Computer Lib have made it if the system was ever completed?

  7. Byron Milligan

    Skunk Works by Ben Rich

    A book about a ragtag group of engineers consistently building sophisticated and unique aircraft (the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the Stealth fighter) on incredibly tight budgets and timelines.

    Skunk Works was very inspirational for me and cemented an ideal in my mind of what quality engineering is. Whenever I write code now, I imagine an SR-71 Blackbird. And whenever I’m in a repl, I imagine I’m in its cockpit.

  8. @hugh

    It was completed –>

    In any case, that’s a good addition. Thanks.

  9. Excellent list of intriguing books – Thanks for sharing!

    To your point—”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”—one highly motivating book for me has been Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming by Peter Seibel (Apress). I was simply blown away by the profoundness of the thinking that was on display as some top programmers in our industry shared their insights in depth.

    And if I may add something…

    So your book, which you co-authored with Chris Houser—The Joy of Clojure—was, and continues to be, a source of inspiration for me. I’ve lost track of the number of times I read (and, naturally, re-read) it, starting with the first edition, which I might as well have dipped in yellow highlighter. The second edition is even better, goodness, which makes me look forward to buying the third edition, should you contemplate writing and publishing it ;)

    Funny coincidence, but I recently posted (on my blog) some opinionated musings on the best Clojure books. Ever. Should you wish to check out which book tops the list, you’re welcome to venture over to Best Clojure Books :)

  10. @Akram

    Wow, your review is incredibly flattering. Thank you so much for taking the time to writing such extensive reviews on not only our book, but also the other great selections. Your enthusiasm has gotten me excited to read On Lisp again! :)

  11. Michael – What a pleasant coincidence, since I really came to visit your blog this morning to ask something, and then saw your note… First, to your note: Let me assure you that you’re altogether too modest. So I do read books—OK, so my house resembles the local Barnes and Noble, is more like it ;)

    Anyhow, during the course of my devouring books over the years, I truly don’t recall seeing in a great long while the likes of your book. Period.

    Your work on Clojure has served as the primary motivator for me to explore, and seek to grok, the Lisp philosophy. Whatever I shared in my reviews is my sincere attempt to do my bit to spread the Clojure / Lisp meme. I’m immensely gratified that those reviews meant something to you!

    Oh, and second, I came to visit your blog this morning—and I’ve obviously got your home-page book-marked, high up in my favorites—to ask something: And referring here to my original comment above, please tell me that you are contemplating the writing and publication of a third edition of The Joy of Clojure, right?

  12. I wish to add two inspirational books (i.e. in addition to the one I had recommended here, a couple days ago). They are:

    1. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) – This is of course the biography of the legendary Nobel laureate, as narrated by Richard Feynman himself, to Ralph Leighton. The LA Times was dead right when it commented on this book, saying, “Books like this are temptations—to give up reading, and devote life to re-reading…”. I do believe my paperback copy was beginning to fall apart after six-plus re-readings ;)

    2. Dune, by Frank Herbert – This is one stellar triumph of the imagination! The movie based on this is also a must-see, knock-out.

    Oh, and to my prior note, where I had wondered whether you and Chris Houser are contemplating, long-term, perhaps a third edition of The Joy of Clojure… If your heart sank at the prospect of even contemplating yet another edition, I hasten to apologize, remorsefully—seriously, though, I know that you truly enjoy writing about Clojure, because it shines through in your writing. But undertaking a new edition is surely a lot of work. Then again, readers like me are an unrepentent sort, always looking for newer works by their favorites authors ;)

    I’ve got a humble suggestion: I’m a huge fan of books from Manning and O’Reilly. O’Reilly has the cookbooks, of course, while Manning has the superb series of “In Practice” books, for example one that I like a lot is Hadoop in Practice… I got to thinking, something along the lines of, perhaps Clojure in Practice, would make a smashing title. Just saying :)

    Whatever and whenever you write next, Michael, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled so I can get a hold of it.

    Best, Akram

  13. Jason Cunliffe

    Great List^. Thank you I am Reading “Joy of Clojure” now.. ~your book is a joy!

    ‘Not Technical’ is reader-variable..

    Here are a handful {5 books} from my library. I feel fit under the filter-description, in the sense that they aim to popularize very technical topics. Some are by masters ‘in-the-field’, others by skilled writers who really want to educate/share a wider {&or younger} audience.

    1. “Starting Forth” by Leo Brody /1981

    2. “Thinking Forth” by Leo Brody /

    Masterpiece. Charming, lively line hand drawn illustrations clarify the text beautifully throughout. Illustrating stack-based nature and idioms of FORTH really shine through. Alas, currently out of print. 2nd hand paper copies are out there.. and some online versions, but not the same flow-feel as the real book in one’s hand.

    Note^ Slava Pestov, created FACTOR, much inspired by FORTH. Factor is to FORTH, as Clojure is to LISP. see and 2008 presentation at Google // video 1h 37mins Factor: an extensible interactive language I think he is now working at Apple on their new ‘Swift’ Language

    1. “The Chermical History of a Candle” by Michael Faraday /1861:2011

    150th Anniversary of his master work of popular science, Based on one of six famous lectures at the Royal Institution, London, 1861. Excellent introduction and notes. Appendix includes scans of Faraday’s orginal lecture notes ! Oxford University Press, 2011 ISBN 9778-0-19-969491-4

    Scientific poetry and logic in motion… //A taste from Faraday’s Preface: “Atom by Atom, link by link, has the reasoning chain been forged. Some links too quickly and too slightly made have given way, and been replaced by better work; but now the great phenomena are known, the outline is correctly and formly drawn, cunning artists are filling in the rest, and the child who masters these Lectures kmows more of Fire than Aristotle.”

    3 Who is Fourier – A Mathematical Adventure

    by the Transnational College of LEX, Language Research Foundation, Belmont,MA. USA 1st printing 1995, 8th printing 2006 English translation by Alan Gleason

    This is brilliant and v unusual book in a series developed by a group of Japanese and Korean international scientists and engineers, many of whom were also academics raising children in multi-lingual, multi-cultural transnational life. So their POV is plural and integrating. The book is an expression of philosophy, a pragamatic introduction from zero to Fast Fourier Transform It is a pedagogical jewel – a book that is open to all ages, and which embrace both great simplicity and fears not to dive into REAL mathematics. Many hand drawn illustrations though out An adept sophisticated and entenertaing balancing act, Both as a presentation in book form, and as it says truthfully on the cover: “a mathematical adventure.” So, I will not spoil the thrilling ending for you! Recommended for all ages, but especially any who teach, or have children, or just love to learn all their lives long or think about problems differently /as I do.


    1. QED by ROchard Feynman, 1985 many reprints

    “The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” TEXT derived popular lecture hilarious, deep and wide


    1. The Man Who Changed Everything

    ~ The Life of James Clerk Maxwell by Basil Mahon, 2004 Wonderful gripping read about an amazing man whose mind and ‘coding’ unlocked our modern era /still is..


  14. @ Jason – I agree to a large extent with your remark that “Not Technical’ is reader-variable..” I have in mind here the paraphrasing of the adage that one man’s rags are another’s riches :)

    And I find fascinating your mention of the book entitled “Who is Fourier – A Mathematical Adventure” – I came across it many, many moons ago while browsing the aisles of the local Barnes and Noble in chilly Minnesota. Yep, it sure came across as a brilliant and unusually intriguing book. But by that time, my studies of Fourier Analysis (FFT and all that) were long past… Your mention, though, now makes me want to give it another look, which I may well do, so thank you!

  15. ‘Not Technical’ is reader-variable..

    Absolutely true. But it’s still fun to get recommendations.

  16. @ Michael – OK, now you’ve really gone ahead and emboldened your readers with that remark ;)

    • And with that, allow me to recommend a book that I came across, some 12 moons ago, while browsing the aisles of the local Barnes and Noble in my home-town now of five years, the radically-balmier-than-Twin Cities city that is Austin – That books is a biography of the inventor of the cellular automaton known to many as the Game of Life:

    • Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, by Siobhan Roberts.

    • It looks super. But I’ve made a promise to myself to get a hold of it only after I’ve worked my way through the fabulous Conceptual Mathematics: A First Introduction to Categories 2nd Edition, by F. William Lawvere and Stephen H. Schanuel, this with both Scala and Clojure in mind…

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