Writing Now where was I?

Seven Precious Books

As I talked about in The Book Stalker, there are books I need on my desk, books I need in the room, and books I just need to know exist. The following seven books are the precious ones I referred to in that article and they each serve a specific purpose.

It strikes me the holiday season is a good time to not only reflect on this purpose, but to honor these books by sharing them with friends.

Universal Principles of Design. Software engineers and designers need to party – together – more. There is no more evidence necessary that when engineers and designers muck around in each other’s business that customers are more likely to be rabid about the final product. Now, most engineers’ knowledge of design is a vast wasteland, but you can take matters into your own hands.

The Purpose: Think of Universal Principles of Design as 125 independent, digestible blog articles that provide convenient access to cross-disciplinary design knowledge. Like many of the books on this list, all you need to find value in this book is to open it… to any page. Why does highlighting matter? How much can a user actually remember? Why should I care about interference effects?

Universal Principles of Design does not give you a playbook for dealing with designers. It constructs small bridges of knowledge into the design world; it gives you convenient places to start thinking about design in your every day so you can start to form a design opinion. And that’s how the party starts.

Writing Down the BonesWriting Down the Bones. Written in 1986, Natalie Goldberg’s book on the craft of writing is one of the few books on the desk. My copy is brand new, but only because the prior two copies have crumbled due to use. Goldberg’s chapters are short and NADD-friendly. Her style blends conversation and content, making her lessons easily approachable.

The Purpose: I open Writing Down the Bones whenever I need a writing tune-up. Whether I’m stuck on a word, sentence or chapter, Goldberg’s advise is not only simple and clear, but enthusiastic: Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the beginning.

Goldberg builds writers.

Accidental Empires. Robert X. Cringley used to write a gossip column you could respect. It was never quite clear whether his column in InfoWorld was based on fact or not — the answer was somewhere in between — but for a nascent software and hardware industry, his column was everything Valleywag failed to be.

The Purpose. Like his column, it’s clear Cringley has layered a generous amount of fiction on the stories surrounding the defining moments of the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe, but it’s a delicious fiction. Who cares whether Bill Gates was arrested for reckless driving? It’s a set of compelling stories about the earliest days of our industry, complete with nerd heroes, egotistical, coke snorting jerks, and the continual expectation an amazing new product was always just about to be released.

Looking for Rachel WallaceLooking for Rachel Wallace. When I signed up for “The American Detective” class in college, it was a throwaway literature class. Read five books, write two papers — no problem. I’ve since forgotten all of the books and authors we read that semester; all of them save for Robert B. Parker.

Parker’s defining character is Spenser, a well-educated, smart mouthed chef who also happens to be a private detective. Parker’s mysteries are uncomplicated and mostly irrelevant. Where Parker shines is a deep focus on characters and the conversations that tie them together. That strength is far more important than the whodunit. You will care about the characters Parker defines; you will laugh with them; and you will wonder how you can know a person, who you will never meet, so well.

The Purpose: Looking for Rachel Wallace just happens to be the first Parker novel I read, but you can read any of them to get a sense of Parker’s style. I read a Spenser novel when I need a constructive reminder about the importance of voice having character. If you want to know where the Rands’ voice formed, you can ask Spenser.

Microserfs. This book first appeared as a short story for then-vibrant Wired magazine. Like when the Challenger exploded, I vividly remember where I was sitting and what I was wearing when I realized: This is me. This is what I do all day. These are the strange people that surround me. People will believe this is fiction because it’s so odd, but it’s real — every day real.

The Purpose: Microserfs’ role on my must-re-read shelf has changed over the years. It’s evolved from a “this is my life” re-read to a “remember how it used to be” retrospective. I re-read it to remember that we work in a strange industry populated with odd characters that build the future with their minds.

Astonishing X-Men OmnibusAstonishing X-Men Omnibus. There are lots of reasons to appreciate Joss Whedon’s nerd ability as the creator of Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Oddly, I never fell under the spell of any of these fine pieces of work, but I’ve read Whedon’s Omnibus cover to cover a dozen times.

The Purpose: I grew up with many of the characters that join to form the core of Astonishing X-Men, and then proceeded to spend the following decade ignoring them. The X-Men movies were entertaining but shallow popcorn versions of the characters I knew.

Whedon’s love for the X-Men exists on every single page of this gorgeous, hilarious and heart-wrenching collection. When I re-read this opus, I pleasantly leave the Planet Earth and remind all those around me that you should never underestimate the ability of a nerd to escape to an impossible world.

Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture. I know nothing about architecture. Zip. Nada. Never had a class. However, I am excellent at looking at it. Phaidon’s hefty book on architecture is a stunning collection of architecture around the world. The book’s size gives the designers of the book room to land huge glossy photographs of works from every part of the globe.

The Purpose. Phaidon’s book serves a single purpose for me: it provides a mental break from whatever the hell I’m doing. I move to the couch and open the book to a random page. Oh look, the swimming pool built in a Berlin as part of their failed attempt to get the 2000 Olympics.

It’s stunning. Now where was I?

The random inspiration of others’ work is a creative reset and a reminder that to do your best work, sometimes you just need to stop paying attention.

Happy Holidays.

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15 Responses

  1. Regarding the first book on your list, I’ve long been searching for the UI equivalent of A Pattern Language or Flavor Bible: a reference like work packed with as many design principals as possible. It looks like you’ve found it! Looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.

  2. Thanks for the cool book list. I was an X-Men enthusiast back in the early 80s. I’ll have to give that one a try. By the way, I have a small correction. As shown in the cover image, it’s Joss rather than Josh Whedon.

  3. Do you get a commission when someone buys a book through the links you provided? If so, you should add a disclaimer.

  4. Thank you for sharing these.

  5. I wish there was a better example of good writing in “Writing Down The Bones” than this: “Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say”.

    It feels like a rather ugly way of expressing a worthy thought.

  6. love when people share their favorite books. There is always something new that i’ve overlooked or haven’t seen before.

    btw, Managing Humans is also one of those few books on my shelf that I lend out all the time. I’ve had to re-buy it three times because it doesn’t always find its way home.

  7. Anon Ymous 13 years ago

    Unfortunate that Astonishing X-Men Omnibus is seemingly sold out everywhere and not available on the Kindle 🙁

    As for the person who said there should be a disclaimer for the Amazon links, why? Why do you care? You don’t have to buy them from amazon, and it’s not like the book costs extra because of it. The infrequent and insightful posts on this blog clearly do not afford the poster a luxurious lifestyle. Also for all you know, he donates the pennies he gets from listing these books. Either way, not the readers business. If you’re worried about people profitting off of your clicks, copy the title, go to your favorite book website, and paste it into their search box and get your books that way.

    As a side note, just for the ‘nerd handbook’ post, I’d donate $100 a year to this site just because of the time that post alone has saved me alone in explaining things to girlfriends!

  8. Michael Taylor 13 years ago

    Regarding Writing Down the Bones, there is a newer edition that is more readily available (and still reasonable priced) ISBN-13: 978-1590302613



    (I tried to preserve Michael (Rands) Lopp’s affiliate reference)

  9. Sam Penrose 13 years ago

    Parker goes well with Whedon and the X-Men in part because Spenser and Hawk have always been superheroes in noir drag (the strongest, pure of heart, etc.). The humorous/gritty erudite-but-slang-savvy voice derives I believe from the 20’s in general and H.L. Mencken in particular. The hard-boiled tradition dates from the same time I believe, as a reaction to WWI.

  10. You do a certain disservice if you say pick up anything by Parker. Anything before the middle 1990s, perhaps, but sometime after that they became padded out scripts, mostly snappy dialog but without the meat of the earlier works.

    I echo ECH0. Early Autumn is my personal favorite.

  11. Eulah Lotzer 13 years ago

    Looking forward to your future posts.

  12. Chris McKay 13 years ago


    Thanks for the Robert B Parker recommendation. Just finished Promised Land and Looking for Rachel Wallace. Looking for Rachel Wallace was excellent. Nice to know there’s a back catalog to explore.

    And if you like Spenser, might I recommend the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr. March Violets is a good starting point.


  13. Rob Torres 13 years ago

    I’m a big enough fan of Universal Principles of Design that I’ve given it as a gift to designers and non-designers alike. It’s always appreciated for the reasons you described. I’m glad to see it on your list.

  14. Claire 13 years ago

    I had to (or rather, got to) read “Microserfs” in a class on incorporating current events into fiction–but I didn’t realize until we met for class that it was non-fiction. To a then-outsider, the world Copeland constructed was cold, hyper-compartmentalized, and fascinating. Thanks for the list; I’m definitely checking out Accidental Empires.

  15. So happy to see Parker/Spenser on your short list. My wife keeps telling me to read “real” books, like those she gets stuck reading for her two middle-aged ladies’ book clubs. As a kid she read most of Agatha Christie, and likes those lawyer-thrillers, like Grisham, but she has no repect for the detective mystery genre. And yet, I learn so much from these stories, and love the process. Parker is one of the few who makes me laugh out loud. As you say, it’s not about the crime, it’s about the characters and dialogue. You betcha! If I can recommend another big favorite, it’ll be Dennis Lehane for his Kenzie & Gennaro series. My current mystery guy is Craig Johnson for his Sherriff Walt Longmire series. Before that, it was Robert Crais and for Elvis Cole & Joe Pike. And then there’s Lee Child and his Jack Reacher. So much fun! Okay, I’ll stop there.