In the world of Silicon Valley, there are few books held in higher esteem than “The Art of Computer Programming,” a multivolume set by Stanford professor emeritus Donald Knuth.
“If you think you’re a really good programmer… read (Knuth’s) Art of Computer Programming… You should definitely send me a resumé if you can read the whole thing,” read a quote from Bill Gates on the cover of the third edition of the first volume.
That quote was taken from a syndicated newspaper column that Gates used to write, reported the MIT Technology Review’s Steve Ditlea, where he also praised its legendary difficulty:
It took incredible discipline, and several months, for me to read it. I studied 20 pages, put it away for a week, and came back for another 20 pages. If somebody is so brash that they think they know everything, Knuth will help them understand that the world is deep and complicated.
When the first volume of “The Art of Computer Programming” came out in 1962, it was the first book to take a deep look into the maths and science of programming. Knuth has made this his life’s work, and has said that it will be a seven-volume set before it’s done, “God willing.” The most recent piece of the book was released in December 2015.
“The four hardbound volumes of Donald Knuth’s ‘The Art of Computer Programming’ — all snug in their dark purple case — send a clear message: Step aside, Muggles, because you’re in the presence of a Real Programmer. A Serious Practitioner of Computer Science,” writes San Francisco entrepreneur Carl Tashian in a Medium essay.
Over that long span, Knuth’s work has become the stuff of tech-industry legend — a rite of passage for any programmer who wants to go beyond mere coding and deeper into the underlying complexity that makes it all work.
“If there is a Koran, Bible, or Tao of Computer Science, this is it,” wrote an Amazon reviewer in 1997.
It’s known for being thorough and deep, sure, but also tremendously challenging and bruising to the ego of many programmers. The cream of the crop, including Gates, have trouble navigating Knuth’s example problems and dense mathematical proofs.
And despite its long publishing history, Knuth keeps “The Art of Computer Programming” up to date by enlisting his many fans. If you spot any kind of error in his books, you might get one of his famous “Knuth reward checks,” a bounty in the amount of $US2.56, or what he calls “one hexadecimal dollar.” Those checks are a valuable prize for anyone who wants to prove that they know what they’re talking about.
You don’t need to read it in order to understand how to write a computer program any more than you have to understand how internal combustion works to drive a car, so don’t take this as a homework assignment. But if you want to test your mettle against the best, the up-to-date “The Art of Computer Programming” is on Amazon now.