Good Computer Books

Rory Bowman of

The poet Gary Snyder once observed in an interview that “books are our grandparents.” With the fragmentation of families and increasing isolation, some of the best moral and social mentoring young people get is often from books, even in this age of electronic communication. In the spirit of Nancy Gravley’s “Computing with Bifocals” columns, then, a list of excellent books on the subject of computers for those who still enjoy the printed page and perhaps a spot of tea.

Robin Williams

With her late 1980’s book The Mac Is Not a Typewriter Robin Williams established herself as one of the best technical writers for home computer users ever. With clarity and humor, Ms. Williams explains technical matters in a way that beginners find simple and experts admire for its elegance. Pretty much anything that she has written is worth buying, and I have used her excellent Little Mac Book series as the basis of several classes I have taught over the years in a variety of settings, from community college to senior centers to a Windows IT department. The current incarnation of this is The Robin Williams OS X Book (in Jaguar, Panther and Tiger editions) but her “Non-Designer” series is also terrific and well worth owning.

Peach Pit Press

Besides publishing Robin Williams, Peach Pit has a stable of other talented authors, and its “Visual Quick Start” series provides handy and accessible references on a variety of Macintosh programs. Designed to cover the sort of tasks the average beginning or intermediate user will want to tackle, the Quick Start series covers finite tasks in one or two pages with careful instructions and well-conceived screen shots. In this same vein they have also recently added an even simpler and less expensive “Visual Quick Project Guide” series which covers basic tasks (such as creating a presentation or web page) using a specific program. Creating a Database in FileMaker Pro, for example, is one of the best introductory books on this program ever written, and in a full-color format that is even more approachable than the Quick Start guides.

Maran Graphics

Maran Graphics’ “Teach Yourself Visually” and “Illustrated” series are amazing, and probably the most visually appealing and conceptually elegant treatment of computer concepts a person could hope for. They are relatively new to the Macintosh area, but their books on Windows, Office and Linux have demonstrated the quality they are capable of. Even if you have only a casual interest in the general concepts behind computers, these are almost like coffee table books for computer tourists, teaching you something about a strange country as you sit there just thinking you are looking at pretty pictures. Largely conceived by Ruth Maran, the company is basically a family in Canada.


For true computer geeks, O’Reilly computer books are the gold standard, and many Unix programmers have cut their teeth on O’Reilly “Nutshell” books and others. They have only recently begun to offer books about the Macintosh, but their solid Unix background makes titles such as Running Mac OS X Panther some of the most sophisticated technical references in print. For real hardcore geeks, O’Reilly also offers a service called Safari Book Shelf which for about $20 per month allows one to read and research most of their technical library online.

David Pogue’s Missing Manuals

The charismatic Mac geek who has moved from musical theater to Mac celebrity to the pages of the New York Times, David Pogue’s “Missing Manual” series provides a solid chapter-book introduction to a variety of programs, filling a niche slightly more literary and narrative than the Quick Start series but less densely technical than other O’Reilly books. For the intermediate user, the Missing Manual series from O’Reilly which Pogue oversees is absolutely worth a look.

Hardly an exhaustive list, I know, but one place to start if you feel like browsing. These books and more are available at many libraries and bookstores, but the Mecca of all tech bookstores is right here in Portland. If you have not been, I encourage everyone to visit Powell’s Technical Bookstore at 33 NW Park, just north of Burnside, in downtown Portland. Happy reading!

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