Introductory Books for Beginning Programmers

I’ve recently started learning progrmming seriously and so I’ve been on the lookout for good books to learn from. So here’s a short list of books that I’ve found useful. They deal with a variety of languages and concepts and the best thing is that they’re all absolutely free. Please note that these books would probably be most useful for someone in the last two years of school, though older people shouldn’t have a problem. I’m personally using them as a sort of prep for studying Computer Science in college and so only time will tell if I’ve been successful.

How to Think Like a Computer Scientist – Python Version

Python by itself is a very good programming language for beginners (unless you’re less than ten years old in which case I would suggest Logo). Combine that with a good book and you get a winning combination. The book’s style is clear and cluttered and the chapters are fairly self-contained. It does a good job of introducing procedural programming first before moving on to object orientation (which can be quite a difficult concept for beginners). My only real gripe is that there seem to be too few exercises, which sort of leaves you on your own to find something to do.

How to Think Like a Computer Scientist – Java Version

This is the original Think Like a Computer Scientist book, and unfortunately it’s one major flaw isn’t really something that can be fixed: the choice of language. Java as a language may be very nice, but it’s certainly not too fascinating for beginners. If your learning programming on your own, like I am, I would recommend starting this book after you’ve come to grips with the object oriented matter in the Python book. That issue aside, it is a very good book and I personally like its style slightly more than I do the Python one’s. One major scoring point is that there are a number of exercises at the end of each chapter which involve both writing and reading/fixing code. This book will also come in handy if you’re studying for the American AP exam, but I’m not quite sure if it covers all the bases. I would suggest combining this with the BlueJ IDE, which’ll let you sidestep many of the practical hurdles involved in using Java as a beginning language.

How to Design Programs

This book is designed from the ground up to make you learn programming that is data-centric, i.e. the program’s very purpose for existence is the data that it manipulates. Unlike other programming books that focus on specific concepts as a path around which to structure your learning, this book focuses on data: you start by using smaller, atomic types of data and then move on to using mroe complex data structures. This book uses the functional programming language Scheme. But this books comes with its own dedicated environment: DrScheme. DrScheme helps beginners tremendously by hiding obscure syntax features until the time is right. It does this by providing not just standard Scheme, but a number of subsets containing only the features that you will need. As you progress through the book you move on to richer and richer subsets until finally you’re ready to use full-fledged Scheme. The book focusses on the ‘why’ of a program rather than the ‘how’.

Structure and Implementation of Computer Programs

Think of this as the last one’s big brother. SICP has been the textbook for MIT’s introductory Computer Science for the better part of two decades. As you can well imagine, this not for the faint of heart. However, once you set your mind to it, you’ll find that the book deserves its reputation as a computer science classic. It’s written in a simple no-nonsense style and like HtDP, it teaches you programming, not a programming language. It uses Scheme, but it makes and effort not to let your attention be drawn to what language you’re using. The book drives home the fact the computer is just a tool and your head is where you have to do the real work. That being said, there is probably no point in reading this book unless you intend to make computers your career. Also, having some amount of programming experience would help you on your way. This book is also rather intensely mathematical, and so make sureyour math skills are well polished before you embark on this journey.

Programming from the Ground Up

This book takes a different approach to programming: it’s basic premise that you can only really learn how to make a program if you understand how the computer ticks inside and what it does when it runs your program. As a result of that philosophy you are required to get up close and personal with the computer and that means assembly language. Yes the book uses assembly language (x86 assembly to be specific), but all the examples are very thoroughly explained and if you have patience in abundance, you shouldn’t have any problems. What sets it apart from SICP, is that while SICP approaches programming from a mostly theoretical aspect, this approach is decidedly practical. Again, probably not worth your time unless you plan on computer science as a career.

Personally, I think all the above are very good books. Of course there is the inevitable question of choice. I’m currently working my way through the How to Think Like A Computer Scientist books (yes, both of them). Once school is over I will try push through How to Design Programs and finally go through SICP and Programming from the Ground Up. All in all, I think all of that should keep me busy for the better part of a year. So in a year’s time, come back and check on my progress. If you’d like an IDE to go with your new book, check out the next post.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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