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Secret Hacker Bookshelf

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I received an email two weeks ago from a guy in the Philippines. He wanted to learn how to program and didn't know where to start. Last week I was talking to a family member -- he wanted to get into computers but didn't know where to start. This week, 2 people came up to me and asked me questions about which books to read to learn startups and marketing.

It's a common pattern. On the forum I visit, HackerNews, every few weeks somebody asks the same question -- what are the best programming books? What are the best startup books? What are the best books on marketing? There are a lot of people asking, and the same questions are asked quite frequently. A quick search on Google lists dozens of questions about programming.

So. What do hackers recommend to each other?

Frankly, it gets old having to post comments recommending the same books over and over again. I know others feel the same way. But still, I'd like to help. So I decided to take all day today and find the best books from hacker discussions and list them here. Next time somebody asks me, I can just point them to this page. Who knows, if enough folks like the list, maybe I can keep it updated and expand on it.

Caveat Emptor: reading a good book on something fuzzy, like marketing or starting a business, is like having a beer with somebody at a bar. There's lots of great ideas and great experiences to be learned. It's also important to note that it's you, not the authors, who is responsible for your life. Don't fixate on any one book or author and go off hell bent for leather on what the author said. Instead, sample broadly, compare notes, learn both sides of the argument, then figure out how to use this new information to do things you want to do.

Having said that, this is a pretty incredible list and a pretty cool bunch of recommenders. If you have time, you should follow the conversations around some of these books. Many of the people commenting and many of the people writing these books have made millions or billions of dollars and would like to help you succeed too. And they're not the traditional get-rich-quick, business porn, or self-help books that clutter up the marketplace. Lots of value here.

These books are listed by how hackers rate them, the vote count -- books appearing higher on the list were voted by hackers as better than those lower. The programming section has several sub-sections that I haven't broken out yet, but you can easily spot where one section ends and another begins.

As for some meta advice, if I were interested in buying one of these books, I'd probably read the pro and con reviews on Amazon, taking careful note of the con reviews (many times the pro reviews are fake). I've had pretty good luck using this technique, especially when I get there from a recommendation from a friend. And now you just gained a thousand hacker friends :)


I wouldn't say the 'pro' reviews were 'fake' so much as 'misguided'. They mean well, but they gush about the thing to further some end, rather than because it truly is good. Maybe they like the author's other books, or they think it's a good book for people who are slightly better or worse at the subject than they are.

In the end, the advice is the same: Read the 'con' reviews. They will tell you what people hated about the experience. Many of them will be petty things or completely wrong, and those are obvious. The ones you want are the ones that have a legit gripe. And then you need to go 1 step further: Do -you- care about that gripe? If you don't, then ignore it. If you do, you need to decide if the rest of the book is worth dealing with that.

This same advice goes for all items, not just books. Since I started using the tactic I outlined above, I have been -much- happier with the products I've bought online.


Glad to hear somebody else with the same experience.

Of course, you are correct: most of the gushing positive reviews are just people "over-excited" with their new purchase/idea. I've read reviews on complex products where the reviewers just went on and on about how great it was -- and they'd only had the thing for a day! So there's no way you could have a balanced opinion in that short of a time.

I've also used this tactic for other purchases. I bought some SCUBA gear a couple of years ago doing this and was very happy with the results.

While I certainly applaud your effort, I believe that you end up presenting noobs with the paradox of choice. Where do they start?

I personally set up two "tracks" here:
1) books on programming
2) books on related disciplines that will help you become a better startup person (design books and business books for example)

I'd also say that you should maybe present the best options of what languages to choose from:
-- Ruby via Chris Pines "Learn to Program, 2nd edition" from PragProg or Peter Cooper's "Beginning Ruby" from Apress
-- Python via Mark Pilgrim's "Dive into Python" or Allen B. Downey's "How to Think Like a Computer Scientist"
-- Scheme via "How to Design Computer Programs, 2nd Edition"
-- Javascript (I don't know which JS books are universally considered the best)

Tell them that they can't go wrong with any of the above languages and that it's probably best to start with one of those four (dynamic languages, less verbose, typically lend themselves to both imperative and functional style programming, etc.)

Parallel to learning to programming they should learn presentation via HTML/CSS. I don't know what general book I would present first, but Head First HTML/CSS is pretty good. I'd follow it up with Eric Meyer's Definitive Guide to CSS from OReilly.

After that I would present the bookshelf above on where they can explore next, because now they have sufficient knowledge to explore further.

Yes Andrew, you are exactly correct.

When I started, I thought there would only be a few dozen books, but after bailing out on a couple of topics because of the numbers involved (over 60 for philosophy alone) I realized that this manual attempt was never going to be as nice as I wanted. There's simply too much information. It needs some meta data. I had to stop after going about 5 pages deep in Google simply because it was too much.

I appreciate your comment. Perhaps others can provide some tips in the comments section for beginners in various areas. I know I think it's a shame there's no Java books. I'd also like to see the programming books grouped out by level.

And then there's the whole issue of automation. In a perfect world, I'd just scrape the results and post them here. That way I could provide links back to the original HN discussion and also pros and cons. Maybe pull in data from other sites.

My problem is that I can see a program or a startup in just about anything! So I decided that the post was fine as it was -- just a big ordered list of books hackers recommend to each other. It was never meant to be more than a uber-comment on HN, just written in blog entry format over here. If you guys would like more, tell me.

Come on man, this is for hackers and there is no:

1. Knuth
2. Hacker's Delight

Really?! I think you have to show people the deep end if only for them to get an idea of how far down the rabbit hole goes.

In politics, some con reviews are also plants. For instance, go on Amazon and search for Saul Alinsky. A minor voice in 1971 activism, he's demonized by the right as a major voice in 1960s activism, and most of the reviews come from fans of Glenn Beck.

Shouldn't be surprised by this, ultimately; social media is both media and social.

I read a lot of these books, and sometimes they can have contradictory information (definitely DO this, other book: Definitely DO NOT do this, etc). I think it shows that there are many different ways to getting to the same end.

I don't know why tipping point was rated to be included in the list? It was an interesting read but I didn't get that much from it.

Also, bullet proof web design is listed twice?

Your list appears to have disappeared—I see nothing but a link to Slate's best marketing books.

Has something gone awry?

Looks okay from here.

your list works in chrome 6.0.472.63, but not firefox 3.6.10

I had an email from a FF user just this morning.

We figured out that you have to turn off AdBlock for the site in order to see the list.

Your article title is somewhat inappropriate. The books you list are certainly not 'secret', and virtually none of them have anything to do with hacking. Especially the marketing and startup sections - really, what hacker in the true sense of the word can ever go into open business with their skills? Or would ever want to or be able to market them? You should have called this 'Some books for beginner programmers.'

Now, for people actually wanting to learn to hack, some examples:
* Hacking the Xbox. An intro to reverse engineering. Andrew "bunnie" Huang.
* Disassembling Code. Vlad Pirogov
* BIOS disassembly ninjutsu uncovered. Darmawan Mappatutu Salihun
* The art of computer Virus Research and Defense. Peter Szor
* Hackers Beware. Eric Cole

One of the best 'hacker information' sites was http://fravia.com
Sadly, Fravia passed away in 2009. The site is still up, but static. See also searchlores.org

Wow! Thanks for the great list on hacking.

As I explain in the article, the books were pulled from HackerNews (hence the use of the word "hacker" in the title) and were gather from multiple posts and put in one place. You couldn't find a list like that unless you sifted the board (hence the use of the word "secret")

I'd love to do a post on "true" hacking books and resources. I really appreciate your providing the suggestions that you did. Hopefully others will find it useful too.

At first I thought they were so secret, you were not going to actually show them to me.
Then I noticed that AdBlocker was blocking just about everything.

Yes, we could show you the books, but then we'd have to kill you.


Thanks for the laugh. I needed that.

I just wanted to point out that in your "recent comments" list, it says:

> # DanielBMarkham: Yes, we could show you the books, but then we'd read more.

That's a risk I have to balance every day!

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on October 3, 2010 12:09 PM.

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  • Jeremy Leader: I just wanted to point out that in your "recent read more
  • DanielBMarkham: Yes, we could show you the books, but then we'd read more
  • kzutter: At first I thought they were so secret, you were read more
  • DanielBMarkham: Wow! Thanks for the great list on hacking. As I read more
  • TerraHertz: Your article title is somewhat inappropriate. The books you list read more
  • DanielBMarkham: I had an email from a FF user just this read more
  • ctwiz: your list works in chrome 6.0.472.63, but not firefox 3.6.10 read more
  • DanielBMarkham: Looks okay from here. read more
  • jseliger: Your list appears to have disappeared—I see nothing but a read more
  • Richard Wilson: I read a lot of these books, and sometimes they read more

Information you might find handy
(other sites I have worked on)

Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
On the low-end of the spectrum, I realized that a lot of people have problems logging into Facebook, of all things. So I created a micro-site to help folks learn how to log-in correctly, and to share various funny pictures and such that folks might like to share with their friends. It's called (appropriately enough) facebook login help