The Art Of Computer Programming - A Great Present
Written by Mike James   
Sunday, 10 December 2023

If you are looking for a programmer present this holiday season, there is one book, or set of books, that should be top of any list... Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming.

Disclosure: I Programmer gets a very small reward if you place an order following the links on the images in this article. 

There are many books that a programmer should read, but Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming, or TAoCP to use its common abbreviation, is a cultural icon. It is a little dated in its style and approach, but it was started back in the 1960s when computers were still not commonplace devices. Before this time algorithms, ways of doing things, weren't really something anybody studied. Knuth's book changed all that and explained to programmers how to think about algorithms. If you want to know more about the project then read Donald Knuth & The Art of Computer Programming.

It was in 1962 that publishers Addison Wesley approached Knuth, asking him to a book on compilers. He initially planned the book as a twelve-chapter work and in typical academic fashion the first three chapters would be based on notes for a course. However, once he embarked on writing he decided on a more ambitious work - one that would codify the theories, methods and algorithms of computer programming - an almost virgin subject at the time, in a complete fashion.

The project is still ongoing and early 2022 saw the the arrival of another major chunk of the work, Volume 4B: Combinatorial Algorithms Part 2. 

Click on the image to find out more.

There had been an 11-year gap since the publication of the preceeding Part 1, but the importance of the topic of Combinatorial Algorithms is reflected by the fact that Volume 4A had reached its twenty-first printing: 

Click on the image to find out more.

That the Art of Computer Programming still isn't finished adds to its status as a cultural icon, but some people argue that a cultural icon is all it is. A Slashdot discussion, dating from 2016 Ask Slashdot: Have You Read 'The Art of Computer Programming'? elicited a range of responses including  "it's too difficult" to "it's irrelevant" but all of the commenters knew what they were talking about. You can't afford not to know what TAoCP  is about. 

Have I read it?

Yes and no. I can honestly say that the idea of sitting down and reading all of the volumes cover to cover isn't my idea of fun, but I have read large chunks of it, especially the first volume and I pick up one of the tomes about once a year. I know it's on my shelf and I feel better for it. Whenever I do dip into it. for some algorithm or other. I always get a deep sense of shock that something that I assumed simple has depths that just go on and on. TAoCP isn't a shallow read and the reason the work isn't complete is that Knuth just keeps going deeper. 

To quote from the latest publishers blurb by Addison Wesley:

Primarily written as a reference, some people have nevertheless found it possible and interesting to read each volume from beginning to end. A programmer in China even compared the experience to reading a poem. Whatever your background, if you need to do any serious computer programming, you will find your own good reason to make each volume in this series a readily accessible part of your scholarly or professional library.

So if you haven't read it, or if you have a special programmer who doesn't have a copy on their shelves, buy at least the first volume - but for that extra special present go for the boxed set. You might get a puzzled look - not all programmers know the work, even though it is regarded as:

"the bible of all fundamental algorithms".

It is also worth knowing that the work is theoretical and mathematically slightly intimidating - it isn't a good present for any programmer who hates math. 

What is the best way to buy?

Click on the image to find out more. 

The top of the range model is the Boxed set of Volumes 1 - 4B and currently its in its 1st Edition which makes it a sound investment. The volumes are also available separately, but at a price that really does make the box sets look like a bargain.

To get started I can recommend Volume 1, which is the one I've read the most of:

 Click on the image to find out more.

Moving beyond TAoCP I would like to suggest a favorite of mine, co-authored by Knuth.

 concreteClick on the image to find out more.

This isn't a deep theoretical book and it is suitable for undergrad computer science students who want to become the next Knuth. It explains all of those summation tricks that allow you to do things like put a bound on resources, etc. This is a unique book and you won't find the information it contains in other places. If you are serious about computer science this is the math you need.  It is also the book to read if you need help with understanding the math in TAoCP.

If you want to know more about the man himself there is a  collection of interviews:

 Click on the image to find out more


But in conclusion, the ultimate programmer present in 2022, to give or to ask for has to be the five-volume boxed set. And of course, you can always buy it for youself. 

taocp 1ro4B


  • Mike James not only writes about books, programming and computer science he also writes books about programming and computer science. These include The Programmer’s Guide To Theory which sets out to present the fundamental ideas of computer science in an informal, and yet informative, way and The Trick Of The Mind: Programming and Computational Thought, aimed at programmers and non-programmers alike, which examines the nature of programming and reveals why it is a very special skill.

Related Articles 

Donald Knuth & The Art of Computer Programming 

Welcome To A New Part of Donald Knuth's Magnum Opus

Donald Knuth At 80 Still Improving TAOCP

Another Chunk of The Art of Computer Programming 

The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4, Fascicle 5

The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4, Fascicle 1 

Programmer Presents 2022 

A Tee Is Not Just For Xmas - Ten Top Tees

Programmer Gifts - Mugs

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 10 December 2023 )