There are so many programming books out there, but most focus on specific technologies and their half-life is incredibly short. Others focus on process or culture. Very few focus on the timeless principles of writing good code, period. The following five books had the biggest influence on my programming style and development:

  • Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns: Incredibly practical advice for what constitutes good OO code. It’s done in Smalltalk, but the principles are mostly universal. Probably my favorite nuts’n’bolts of programming design book. Very granular.
  • Refactoring: The fundamental before/after book. Here’s some code that could be better, here’s how to make it better. The trick to reading this book is to carefully read through every single refactoring pattern and then try to apply it on your code base (you don’t have to commit if it doesn’t fix things). You can’t just blow through it or you won’t really learn it. And you can’t just say “oh, I’ll look up a refactoring when I need it” — because then you don’t know what to look for.
  • Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture: Great inventory of many of the patterns that underpin Rails itself, as well as descriptions of many of the “new” approaches that people advocate today (like transaction scripts and service layers). You won’t necessarily implement most of these patterns yourself, but it’s an invaluable resource to understanding the differences in architectures and why framework work the way they do. (Funny anecdote: before I created Rails, I redrew many of the diagrams in OmniGraffle for Martin Fowler because I liked the book so much.)
  • Domain-Driven Design: This is probably the least readable book of the bunch. It’s a slug to work through, but the ideas are worth it. It’s a great primer on how to turn a problem space into a beautiful OO domain model. What should your models be called? What logic goes where? How do we reproduce reality into an object model.
  • Are Your Lights On?: This isn’t technically a programming book, but it deals with the biggest problem facing developers none the less: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Is it the right problem? Could we solve a different problem instead and that would be just as good? Nothing has increased my programming productivity more than being able to restate hard problems as simple ones.

If you consider programming to be a subset of writing, and I certainly do, then you would also do well to read Elements of Style and On Writing Well. I’ve found reading those made me a better programmer as well.

Reading these five to seven books will give your programming chops more vitamins and nutritional value than a couple of year’s worth of blog posts and tutorial.