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10 Best Computer Science Books of All Time

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The best Computer Science books were published in the 20th century. This does not mean that such recent books like Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution and Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software are not as good. It simply means that they will become the best books if they are still being talked about in 2030.

My list contains great books although other books such as Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, The Little Kingdom by Michael Moritz, Macintosh by Carol Kaehler, The Road Ahead by Bill Gates, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold and The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric S Raymond are just as great.

Let’s look at the ten best books(in no order) that have been fundamental guides for many Computer Science professionals and non-professionals over the years. Anyone can read these enjoyable reads and learn a lot about the computer revolution, the computing industry, the creation of the Silicon Valley, gaming, computer programming, the origin of hackers, the people who made a fortune from the computer revolution and the known and unknown history and controversies of one of the largest industries in America.

The Art of Computer Programming By Donald E. Knuth- Volumes 1-4A Boxed Set 1st Edition

“I decry the current tendency to seek patents on algorithms. There are better ways to earn a living than to prevent other people from making use of one’s contribution to Computer Science.”

This is the top best Computer Science book of all times. The elegant, accurate, humorous, clear, tough and broad volumes have received praise all over the world. Programmers use these books to sharpen their skills by carrying out the exercises the author provides. However, they confess that it is impossible to complete these tough exercises.

The first volume of this book was first published 1968. Knuth wrote this volume when he was a graduate student at California Institute of Technology. Since then, Knuth has added three volumes to this series and plans on adding a fifth, sixth and seventh volumes. The first volume is on fundamental algorithms, the second volume is on seminumerical algorithms, the third is on sorting and searching and the fourth volume (4A) is on combinatorial algorithms.

Knuth’s book series on computer programming have played a great role in teaching this skill to software. Furthermore, Knuth has made inventions along the way such as TEX. TEX is a typesetting system used for mathematical publications or any publications of a technical nature. This was after realizing that the HOT typesetting system was producing low quality work. TEX has hence been used on all his volumes.Knuth also came up with METAFONT and MIX  assembly language. MIX has been used in all the four volumes.

The volumes enable software developers to understand the history of programming. For instance, in the third volumeKnuth discusses how the “trie” data structure was discovered and how it has twice been improved. Additionally, KNuth’s computer programming volumes one, two, and four deeply delve in Math which helps to improve one’s understanding of Computer Science.

Summary of the four volumes

Volume one: Knuth discusses Mathematical problems, introduces the MIX assembly language, basic programming concepts and data structures such as trees and lists.

Volume two: the book on seminumerical algorithms discusses the generation and statistical testing of pseudo-random numbers. It also explores numerical computations such as working with floating points, polynomials and rationals.

Volume three: the sorting and searching volume discusses more complex topics. It introduces Mathematical permutations, analyses a wide range of algorithms for sorting in memory such as insertion, exchange, merging selection, and distribution sorting and searching.

Volume 4A: It introduces boolean basics, boolean distribution, bitwise tricks, and techniques, discusses generating all permutations, combinations,n-tuples, trees and partitions and explores binary decision diagrams.

The volumes have translated into languages such as German, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, and Russian.

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Knuth is a Computer Scientist, Mathematician and a professor at Stanford University. He has received several awards for his outstanding work such as the Medal of Science given to him by President Carter.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do you pronounce your last name?

A: Ka-Nooth

Q: When did you stop using email?

A: I stopped using email in 1990. Since then, I have been a happy man. I find that email works for people who have to be on top of things at all times. However, that is not the case with me. Writing about programming requires long uninterrupted hours of work. During such hours I study Computer Science in its entirety and then I summarize the work for people who lack the time for exhaustive reading. Therefore, I prefer to receive and send mail the old-fashioned way where I can reply to all letters once every three months.

Q: Who will answer my questions about TEX?

A: Read the book Computers aTypesettinging which has five volumes. The volumes discuss METAFONT and TEX typology. The volumes are The TeXbook, TeX: the program, The METAFONTbook, METAFONT: the program, and Computer Modern Typefaces.

Q: How do I download .gz files to a Personal Computer?

A: Usually, your PC browser will uncompress such files. It is best not to rename the file. For instance, if you download 2pg.tex.gz which is 7558 bytes, you will probably get a file LPGTEX.gz which is 18,000 bytes long. Rename the file as 2pg.tex.gz. However, in case your browser fails to uncompress the gzipped file, you can do it yourself. Simply download gzip.exe. and type “gzip-d fileman.gz”

Q: Explain those Chinese characters on your home page

A: That is my name in Chinese. It was given to me by Frances Yao in 1977.

Basic Computer Games By David H Ahl

This book was first published in 1973 as 101 Basic Computer Games. The games were made for minicomputers. David Ahl left Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to establish Creative Computing Magazine. He then purchased the rights to publish the book under the name Basic Computer Games. He edited and improved the games so that they would be compatible with a microcomputer. This was the first computer book to make one million sales.

The games were in BASIC programming language. Software in the 1970s and 1980s was written in Basic.

The book was first published by David’s employer, Digital Equipment Corporation. The games in this edition were made for minicomputers. Later, this edition that could run on microcomputers was published. Another book by David Ahl is More Basic Computer Games published in 1979. This book discussed which games such as Hunt the Wumpus. This was followed by Big Computer Games published in 1984 and Basic Computer Adventures published in the same year.

This book contains games such as Super Star Trek, checkers, Battleship Hammurabi, and Nim. These games were non-graphic. They were made of alphanumeric characters and were a lot of fun.

These BASIC games lacked real-time interaction. Rather than pressing a button to give instructions, a typed a command was used instead.

I made my first computer game using this book back in the 1970s. I believe the book helped shape my career. Although I am now conversant with more complex computer programs, I can never forget Basic Computer Games. It was the highlight of my teens.

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The Soul of a New Machine By Tracy Kidder

“What I like about non-fiction is that it covers such a huge territory. The best non-fiction is also creative.”

This non-fiction book was published in 1981. It is the best computer-related book ever published. It has a Pulitzer Prize and a National award for non-fiction as proof.

The author, Tracy Kidder, narrates how a group of computer engineers working under immense pressure to create a next generation minicomputer. The Data General Eclipse MV/8000 was launched in 1980.

Data General Corporation was at this time at the top of the minicomputer business with Digital Equipment Corporation as its biggest competitor. However, by the time the book was published, the microcomputer era was just beginning. Data General was later bought by EMC in 1999.

What makes  The Soul of a New Machine a classic is that the narration of the team’s experiences is moving. On the other hand, the book has tons of lessons to teach its readers including businesses. For instance, the management skills used in this book are not the traditional top-down management. Instead, innovations begin from the bottom.

The book also promotes the engineering profession. Reading about the joy the team experienced from creating this machine, one cannot help but admire profession. Their hard work was not for nothing.

When I read this book back in the 1980s after it was published, I was fascinated. The detailed account of the engineering process required in making a next-generation computer was not only poignant but also interesting. I learned a lot from the management skills used in ensuring that the team remained motivated in creating the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 in time.

Thirty years later, the idea to read the book a  second time came up. I was pessimistic on whether it would fascinate me the same way it did the first time. Fortunately, it did. The manner in which Tracy narrates about this team is moving. Reading about how a team with so much diversity spent long hours and a lot of pressure to create something new was very motivating. Although the read is not based on present technology, it is mindblowing and absorbing.

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Before publishing this book, Tracy Kidder, a former Army Intelligence Officer had written a series of Vietnam-related. This work was of a fictional nature.

Computer Lib/ Dream Machines You Can and Must Understand Computers Now

“So, the point was to be able to have a medium that would record all the connections and all the structures and all the thoughts that paper could not. Since the computer could hold any structure in any form, this was the way to go.”

This book was published in 1974 and written by Theodor H. Nelson. Unfortunately, the book is no longer in print.

This a two in one book with the first being Computer Lib you can and must understand computers now and the second being Dream Machines which looks into computer graphics and hypermedia.

Theodor is known for coming up with the terms hypertext and hypermedia. He invented Xanadu which is the first hypertext and hypermedia system. Unfortunately, Xanadu is still incomplete.

In his narration, the author greatly emphasizes the need for everyone to understand computers beyond what common computer literacy promotes. He expresses his view of the fact that the truths and facts about computers are mostly kept away from common people. Additionally, he expresses his anti-IBM views. At this time, IBM was dominant in the computer industry. Theodor did not believe in the centralization of computers.

Additionally, Theodor discusses virtual reality, undo tools and gesture-based input, hackers ethic among other things. Some of these features now exist while the rest might take place at some time in the future.

The book contains text in different typefaces, drawn illustrations and handwritten notations. The book also has opinionated views and self-made words. The character of this book had at first made it difficult for Theodor to publish his first edition. The book is also prescient especially because it was published before the first basic Personal Computers were launched.

Though a rare book to find, this book should be on everyone’s  must-read list because it discusses future technology. After reading this book, you will surely come to find out exactly who the real computer visionaries are.

Theodor Nelson is often credited with coining the term hypertext in 1965. While the term hypertext had appeared as early as the 1940s, Nelson was the first person to use it within the context of upcoming computer technologies of the sixties and seventies as a new method of publication.

The term visionary is often used inappropriately when talking of people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos etc. However, as I read this seventies book whose literature was founded on the notions that Nelson had put together in the sixties, I got the true meaning of a visionary.

This book is an outstanding computer classic, both informative and inspiring. It is unfortunate that it no longer in print. This is a great must read all the same.

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Theodor Nelson has also written books such as Literary Machines and Geeks Bearing Gifts. He has been given several awards.

The word processing book: A short course in computer literacy By Peter McWilliams

“Programs that are easy to learn are called *user friendly.* I’m not sure what programs that are not easy to learn are called, but I’ve run into a few user unfriendly ones, and a couple that have been downright hostile.”

This book was published in 1982. However, it is no longer in print.

Peter McWilliams makes a technical topic on computers easy to read and understand. Peter’s writing style is comical, eccentric and personal. He references cartoons and old understand to make the material as easy to understand as possible.

In his book, McWilliams provides answers to the many questions that people had about computers during this time. For instance, he lets the reader know why they should stop using a typewriter and use a computer instead. He also suggests computer models for his readers such as the Coleco Adam and the Teleram T-30000. These models are dated in the early 1980s.

McWlliams also published The Personal Computing Book eight months following this book. The book was just as fascinating as its predecessor.

These books among The Word Processing Book for KayPro Computers, Questions and Answers on Word Processing and Word Processing on The IBM attracted attention. Some of these books also appeared on bestseller lists. He also wrote Life 101 and many other books. McWilliams published his own books.

Although this book is no longer in print and is dated, it is a must read for anyone working with word processing with any program. Compared to other books on specific programs that tell how to operate something, this book tells you why to operate something. This book discusses basic word processing concepts in an informative and fun way. I have always loved Peter McWilliams’ books. He left behind a great legacy. I recommend this book.

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Peter McWilliams passed away in 2000. Besides writing, McWilliams was also a poet, an activist, and a photographer. He campaigned for the legalization of marijuana.

Peter Norton’s Inside the PC, Eighth Edition

This book was published in 1983 under the name Inside the IBM PC. Peter Norton’s books were characterized by his picture on the front cover with his arms crossed.

Inside the IBM PC was a guide to computer hardware such as motherboards and processors and software. This book was of great importance as it was written at a time when PC owners had to know was going on inside the PC. This book went on to its ninth edition.

Peter Norton’s Inside the PC  was co-authored by ohn Goodman. Norton wrote many books with co-authors before he stepped out of the computer business.

This book discusses the PC family. The book looks into computer hardware and everything connected to it and operating systems such as Windows and DOS. The book enables the reader to completely understand what is inside the PC. With such information, a reader can make the best decisions when it comes to purchasing a PC or any other computer hardware or software. Peter Norton also explores processors, the internet, multimedia and portable PCs.

Although Norton’s books were successful, his software company made him wealthy. He later sold it to Symantec Corporation in 1990 and focused on other activities such as charity and art collection. From this purchased, he gained a third of Symantec’s stock and a seat on the board of directors. His sold company became a branch of Symantec under the name Peter Norton Computing Group. The Norton brand is still seen in Symantec’s products such Norton Antivirus and Norton Internet Security.

Inside the PC was updated last in 2002 and although it extremely out of date, the book has a lot of important information that is still relevant today.

This is a fascinating book for a reader with a keen interest in PCs. I feel that this book is the ultimate encyclopedia to PCs. It has a wide wealth of knowledge that covers everything inside a PC. It also discusses all computer acronyms and goes ahead to explain them in detail rather than just giving the meaning of the acronym in a sentence or two. Additionally, it discusses media storage formats, socket services, flash, card bus and so much more. While it gives deep detail on each topic, external references are given for further intense reading.

Norton also covers disks extremely well. If you desire to know much about FAT, FAT 12, master boot record and so on, this is the book to read. The book also targets a wide range of audience from novices to experts.

The sad part is that this book was written in an era where people owned PCs, programmed the hardware themselves and used terms such as DEBUG. Now that Microsoft does everything for us, most of this information is no longer applicable.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is today’s equivalent to Peter Norton’s Inside the IBM PC?

A: Peter Norton’s Inside the IBM PC still remains the best place to begin. You can also get such information from the internet on how stuff work. Additionally, you can read Stalling’s Computer Organization and Architecture.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

“Computer technology is so built into our lives that it’s part of the surround of every artist.”

This book was published in 1984. The book is in print in its 25th-anniversary edition.

The book was written during a time when the word hacker was held with much admiration and respect. It talks about the sacrifices and efforts made by the original hackers from the late 1950s to the early 1980s towards pushing the world in a new direction. The breed of hackers originated from the need to have the freedom of information. This was because the time was characterized by limiting the use of computers to a select few.

Levy’s story begins at MIT between 1958 and 1959 where smart students push the limits in an attempt to explore computers. It mentions the Tech Model Railroad Club and their involvement with IBM computers such as the  704 and TX-0They came up with methods of getting into these computers and their efforts were rewarded. To them, this was all for fun. They would then go ahead and write programs competitively.

Levy then gives a detailed account of the positive changes made to the simple Altair model (a 1975 home computer) resulting in the creation of Apple II.

The story then moves to the eighties when games were the ultimate thing. He describes hackers who established Sierra, Broderbund and Sirius game companies.

These first generation hackers include Slug Russell, Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates. Slug Russell is known for creating Spacewar and Lee Felsenstein is known for designing SOL-20 and Osbourne 1. Such are the celebrity hackers that deserve to be celebrated for their efforts and for sticking to the hacker ethics. The 25th-anniversary edition discusses Bill Gates, Stallman, and Mark Zuckerberg.

The book also discusses the ethics that hackers lived by such as “all information should be free”, “hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, race, sex, age and position”, “computers can change your life for the better”, “mistrust authority—promote decentralization”, “access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total always yield to the hands-on imperative” and “you can create art and beauty on a computer.”

Levy says that his book Hackers stumbles on a commonly discussed topic on the principle of “all information should be free.” At MIT in the late fifties, ownership was unheard of.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in the history of hackers and their contributions to the computing world. A highly recommendable book.

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Steven Levy is a journalist and an author. He has written books on topics such as computers, the internet, and cyber security. He is the chief editor of the tech hub for Medium.

The New Hacker’s Dictionary – 3rd Edition (Edited By Eric S. Raymond)

“Berkeley hackers liked to see themselves as rebels against soulless corporate empires.”

This book was published in 1991. The book is still in print. The third edition was edited by Raymond and published by MIT Press.

The book originated from a list of slang related AI (Artificial Intelligence) compiled by a Stanford Ph.D. student named Raphael Finkle. The list was taken to MIT where Jargon File was created. It contained lists from Stanford, MIT, and the old Advanced Research Projects Agency Network ARPANET communities such as Newman, Carnegie Mellon University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The book was then published in 1983 as The Hacker’s Dictionary, revised in 1991 as The New Hacker’s Dictionary edited by Eric Raymond. The third edition was published in 1996. Raymond’s version includes terminology based on the public internet and the World Wide Web. The last update was made in 2012 to include internet slang and text messaging by a volunteer editor.

This third edition updates the previous entries and adds 100 new entries.  The book gives the history and origin of existing entries and also clarifies the origin of entries that were previously unclear. The book defines terms such as hacker, bogus, and wannabe. The book acts as a great guide to Tech slang and also gives one a feel of hacker culture. The lexicon is well written, provides accurate tech slang history and is somehow humorous (e.g. hacker: previously referred to someone who made furniture using an axe). Perusing through this book should definitely be fun.

For example, the book clearly shows the difference between crackers and hackers. Crackers lack internet skills, programming skills and they lack experience with multi-user systems such as UNIX. Crackers have characteristics such as often misspelling words (for example by using f in the place of p), substituting s with z (for example passwordz), type unnecessary characters after posts (e.g. Hey you##!??$$), use the k prefix for emphasis (e.g. k-awesome), write in uppercase for emphasis, and use abbreviations inappropriately. This pirate board subculture got is inspiration from skateboard jargon and underground rock dialect.

Though outdated with little current terminology, the book offers historical information that is fun to read. The book also gives a history of the current technology which I found interesting. Additionally, the subtle humor used here and there makes it a fascinating read. I recommend this book.

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Eric S. Raymond commonly known as ESR is an American software developer. He has authored The Cathedral and The Bazaar, a frequently cited essay and a guide on the game NetHack. ESR has cerebral palsy a condition that encouraged him to study computing. Raymond is also a campaigner of open source software.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hackers

Q: What jobs are hackers good at?

A: Systems administration, programming, and design.

Q: Why do hackers count from zero?

A: Computers count from zero. Working with computers makes hackers get into the habit of doing the same.

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date By Robert X. Cringely

“Apple isn’t the next Microsoft, you see. Apple is not the next anything because the role it aspires to transcends anything imaginable by Microsoft, ever. Google is the next Microsoft, so Google is seen by Ballmer as the immediate threat- the one he has a hope in hell of actually doing something about.”

This book was published in 1992. The book is still in available in print. Robert X. Cringely is also a pseudonym used by two writers, one who works for Infoworld Magazine and one who doesn’t. The real Robert X. Cringely also wrote for Infoworld Magazine at some point.

The computing industry is the largest in America. The book gives an account of how companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Lotus and Compaq made their wealth. The author’s style of writing is exaggerative and hardly sticks to the title (there is little information given on battling foreign competition and dating).

He describes how these personal computer companies successfully made it accidentally through people who were amateurs, egotistic and rule breakers. Such people made whereas those with professional skills such as IBM failed.

The author also accounts the personalities of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor among others. For instance, he explains Steve Jobs’ behavior in Apple and NeXT on the fact that he was an adopted child. He makes comparisons between Bill Gates and Emir of Kuwait and Steve Jobs with Saddam Hussein.

The book is funny, juicy, predictive, full of anecdotes and gives a clear picture of the personal computing industry during the early 1990s. Most importantly, the author is not afraid to give the ugly truth inside Silicon Valley. Cringely predicts that at the end of the millennium the mainframe industry will fall because changing the software with regard to the date change will be more expensive than purchasing new PC networks and minicomputers. The 1996 edition has fewer predictions compared to the 1992 one because it was easy to see how quickly the industry was changing and how wrong predictions could be.

In 1996, a documentary miniseries based on the same year’s edition was produced by PBS. The series was called Triumph of the Nerds: the rise of accidental empires. This was followed by a TV program where Bill Gates and Steve jobs give the history of personal computers through interviews.

I found this book fascinating and enjoyable. Cringely narrates about the lives, rumors, and personalities of more than a dozen people in the PC industry.

This book gives the reader an idea of how it must have been like to be part of one of the biggest eras in human history: the computer revolution.

This is the go-to book for anyone curious about the people who established Silicon Valley. I recommend this book.

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DOS for Dummies 3rd Edition by Dan Gookin

This book was published in 1991. Dan Gookin’s books DOS for Dummies and PCs for Dummies were the first for dummies books to be written. The first edition of this book was an international bestseller.

Fortunately, this book is still in print.

Since the release of these books, the two words (for dummies) have been used to write books for beginners on a wide range of topics such as food, cars, and sex. The character of dummies books is often humorous. IDG and Wiley have published more than 1700 dummies books. It also influenced several TV and movie references.

This is a great guide for anyone who still recalls what a C prompt is and wants to run the DOS games in windows. Though old and boring, DOS for Dummies makes the operating system seem fun and easy to use.

The guide simplifies commands such as APPEND and XCOPY and provides tricks and tips on how to make DOS do what you want without spending much time on it. Gookin does this using a humorous approach that is easy to understand yet very enlightening.

Gookin gives step by step instructions on changing disks and drives, handling DOS prompt, handling files, running DOS in windows, how to install and run DOS based software programs, using a printer and serial ports, working with a mouse and keyboard, troubleshooting problems, and the meaning of DOS error notifications.

A lot of people will never use the information given in this book. However, if you have had problems with your computer’s operating system or with a software and had to hire a technician to fix it for you, you will realize that they usually make use of DOS commands to override the system, Therefore, I prefer learning the commands so that I can fix the problems myself.

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Dan Gookin is a computer guru who has written more than 150 computer books. He is not only an author but also a member of Coeur d’Alene City Council and was an artistic director of the Lake City Playhouse in 1997. He was the editor of a San Diego periodical call ComputorEdge Magazine in the eighties.

Questions this book will answer:

Q: How do I use backup and restore commands

A: Windows 95 no longer has these commands. This is because files cannot be restored on another PC that you backed up from a former MS-DOS version.

Q: How can I sort the directory listing. For example, having the oldest files at the top?

A: To sort oldest to newest files with the oldest at the top type dir/o:d. To sort newest to oldest files with the newest at the top type dir/o:-d

Q: How can I find out what every drive letter is?

A: To get a list of all drive letters, type “fsutil fsinfo drives” and to get a drivers type, type “fsutil fsinfo drivetype drive”

Q: How can I copy all the windows text to the windows clipboard?

A: Right click on the windows title bar and choose “SELECT ALL” then click the Enter key. Paste the text into any application such as Windows Notepad Editor or Wordpad Editor. Use the PrtSc key to screenshot the text when you would rather not copy it.

Q: How can I alter the color and font of the command window?

A: Click the icon located on the title bar’s top left or right click anywhere on the title bar. Select properties from the drop down menu that appears. Select the font tab to change the font and the color tab to change the color. After choosing the font and color you prefer, save the changes.

Q: How can move to another drive?

A: Type the drive letter then a colon (for example d:) and press the Enter key. This command will switch to the selected drive.

10 Best Computer Science Books Of All Time