Recommended (Fun) Books for Undergraduates
When I advise students, I ask if they read books for fun, because
active reading is a key part of intellectual development. It almost
doesn't matter what kind of books you read—mysteries, science
fiction, romance, thrillers—as long as you have enough fun to get you
to read additional books. Eventually students may turn to more
I sometimes lend my own books—typically books about the history of
technology—to students to get them started. This Web page, then,
lists some initial recommendations for books, non-fiction and fiction,
that are relatively easy reads for undergraduates, engrossing, and
fun. If you'd like to suggest additional books to list here, please
- The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 1966: A pair of San
Franciscans may or may not be on the trail of an ancient conspiracy;
Pynchon's first novel, rather short, full of pop culture, funny and
- Travels with my Aunt, Graham Greene, 1969: The even life of a retired
bank employee turns into a roller-coaster when he meets the sister of
his late mother; one of Greene's funniest works, revelatory.
- Catch 22, Joseph Heller, 1961: Savage, funny and unforgettable
novel about of the absurdity of war, in this case in Italy in World
War II; I used to read this book every three years.
- Side Effects, Woody Allen, 1975: A collection of very funny short
pieces that, amazing enough, can be tied to ideas in computer
science, such as the class-instance distinction.
- Skunk Works, Ben R. Rich, 1996: The story of Lockheed's famous
bleeding-edge aerospace unit, as told by its second director; I would
have loved to have worked for the author.
- The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage, 1999: How the telegraph
developed; a remarkable precursor to the Internet.
- The Subterranean Railway, Christian Wolmar, 2005: The history of
the London Underground.
- The Map that Changed the World, Simon Winchester, 2002: The story
of a canal digger whose 22-year effort to create a map of the
structures under the surface of the earth founded modern geology.
Non-fiction: Relevant to Computer Science
- How to Solve It, G. Polya, 1954 (2nd edition): Heuristic methods
for solving mathematical and other technical problems. A
- The Last Fine Time, Verlyn Klinkenborg, 1990: The chronicle of the
life of a family-owned restaurant in Buffalo, New York; brings the
post-war era to life.
- The Common Stream, Rowland Parker, 1976: The story of the
development of a village near Cambridge, England, from prehistory to
- K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain, Ed
Viesturs, 2009: A gripping history of attempts—successful and
unsuccessful—to climb K2; after reading this book I wanted to fly
directly to the Himalayas to see where this all happened.
- Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain, 2000: A savagely funny
backstage tour of the restaurant world. (If you'd like to read a
literary precursor, try "Down and Out in Paris and London," by
Further reading for the more adventurous
Here are a few additional books for whom greater challenge would
bring greater rewards
And for even further reading, check out Time's
100 best English-language novels.
- Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, 1946; a sweeping novel of Great Britain from
1923 to 1943, with its characters divided by class, faith, and loss
- Goedel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter, 1979; an idiosyncratic classic of genius, tying together
mathematics, the visual arts, and music.
- Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, Anthony Everitt, 2010; a biography of the Spaniard who ruled the Roman Empire at
- The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939. A darkly funny
satire of Hollywood in the 1930s. If you like this, then follow up
with The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh, 1948.