The Risc OS Programmers Reference Manual
I got into programming in the early 80s, when computer games came printed as type-in programs in magazines. I didn’t know a single person who could program, and I had no reference to refer to. When I was fifteen or so, I was on a trip to London with my parents, and I spotted this set of books in Foyles bookshop. They were really expensive. But my Mum pushed to buy them for me. I still credit them as being the point where I began to program properly, and seriously. And since programming is still the core of what I do, they hands-down win as the book that most changed my life.
Fear and Trembling. Søren Kierkegaard
This book was central to the journey I took as a theology undergraduate. In the interview for a university place, the tutor said told me that a secular theology school was not the place to learn more about my faith. Sure enough a large minority of believers on the course rapidly lost their faith. I didn’t. My faith changed, I became would now be called a ‘progressive Christian’, though I hadn’t heard the term at the time. This book was key in making that happen.
Kierkegaard revisits the Abraham and Isaac story, retelling it over and over, but each time the story goes astray. Each time he allows the characters to act in reasonable ways, and the story derails. Eventually we conclude, with him, that the story is unreasonable. But more than that, the unreasonableness is crucial – that unreasonableness is at the heart of religious belief.
The Form of the Book. Jan Tschichold
I’d considered becoming a graphic designer as an undergraduate, and when I finished my degree and went to work for the American Baptist Church I did their graphic design work (among many other things). I bought this book at that point, and it immediately captivated me. I reread it over and over, and still return to it every year or so.
Tschichold was a typographer and the designer for Penguin books in the late ’40s, when it defined the look and feel of the modern paperback. The book is ostensibly about the mechanics of book design: paper size, line height, font-choice, title page layout, and the like. But as in all good books, it is the subtext that makes it compelling. In this case the book gives a comprehensive aesthetic education. This book made me see the world differently.
The Origins of Order. Stuart Kauffman
I’d read about Kauffman’s work as I thought about doing a PhD, and I bought this book just before starting my research. A few years later, I was at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and was lucky enough to spend some time with Stuart. This book profoundly changed the way I look at the world. While I was at Santa Fe I worked on a problem in developmental paleobiology using mathematics from this book.
The book is long and technical (Kauffman’s “At Home in the Universe” is a popular science version, though I think Kauffman writes better for a technical audience). It argues that order is not an amazing, accidental byproduct of the natural world, nor a pre-condition of evolution. Self-organization arises, almost inevitably, from very general features of the universe. In my view this very under-appreciated work demolishes 90% of fine-tuning arguments, and is the main reason I am convinced there is vast amounts of life beyond the earth.
There are plenty more books that have a story for me, but are in the next tier down. Books such as Minksy’s Society of Mind, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Paden’s Religious Worlds, Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Levy’s Artificial Life. And of course the bible, particularly the New Testament (and within that Mark’s gospel) would be high on the list, if I hadn’t excluded it under the rules of “Desert Island Disks”.
If you’re a blogger, and are up for a bit of self revelation, how about creating your own list? Or leave a comment with some of your life-changing books and how they came to effect you.