Fun Books for Learning Programming

I learned Fortran from the TV course and book by Jeff Rohl. Some years later I came across A FORTRAN Coloring Book by Roger Emanuel Kaufman (MIT Press, 1978). The text is entirely handwritten (even the copyright page), is illustrated with numerous cartoons, and is full of witty wordplay. Yet it imparts the basics of Fortran very well and I could have happily learned Fortran from it. It even describes some simple numerical methods, such as the bisection method. The book is one continuous text, with no chapters or sections, but it has a good index. I’ve long been a fan of the book and Des Higham, and I include three quotes from it in MATLAB Guide.

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Kaufman’s book has attracted attention in cultural studies. In the article Bend Sinister: Monstrosity and Normative Effect in Computational Practice, Simon Yuill describes it as “the first published computing text to use cartoon and comic strip drawings as a pedagogic medium” and goes on to say “and it could be argued, is the archetype to the entire For Dummies series and all its numerous imitators”. I would add that the use of cartoons within magazine articles on computing was prevalent in the 1970s, notably in Creative Computing magazine, though I don’t recall anything comparable with Kaufman’s book.

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A page from Illustrating C.

A book in a similar vein and from the same era, is the handwritten Illustrating Basic by Donald Alcock (Cambridge University Press, 1977). It’s a bit like Kaufman without the jokes, and is organized into sections. This was the first in a series of such books, culminating in Illustrating C (1992). Like Kaufman’s book, Alcock’s contain nontrivial examples and are a good way for anyone to learn a programming language.

Thinking Forth by Leo Brodie, about the Forth language, is typeset but contains lots of cartoons and hand-drawn figures. It was originally published in 1984 and is now freely available under a Creative Commons license.

A more recent book with a similarly fun treatment is Land of Lisp by Conrad Barski (No Starch Press, 2011). It teaches Common Lisp, coding various games along the way. It’s typeset but is heavily illustrated with cartoons and finishes with a comic strip.

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