Buy Hackers and Painters

by on March 9, 2007 · 2 comments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly whittling down the tall stack of books I’ve been meaning to read. A lot of them are ponderous tech policy tomes that have been a chore to get through (I still haven’t finished this one), so I was happy to get to Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters. It was given to me for Christmas over a year ago, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it ever since, but it just now bubbled up to the top of the list.

I devoured it in two sittings over the course of about 3 days, and I’m not a particularly fast reader, so that’s saying something. It’s a delightful mix of philosophy, sociology, and hard core geekery. He explains why junior high sucks, why Lisp is the world’s best programming language, why web-based software is going to take over the software world, why geeks tend to be libertarians, how Bayesian spam filters work, why heresies are essential to a free society, and how to make great things.

The keystone essay seems to be this essay about how “makers”—painters, hackers, architects, filmmakers—become good at what they do. Graham is fascinated by the idea of talent: whether it exists, who has it, where it comes from, and how to develop it. “Taste for Makers” ties together the first half of the book—which explores the role of talented people in society—with the second half, which is devoted to discussing computer programming as a craft.

A striking omission is that he doesn’t spend much time talking about writing. He draws extensive parallels between programming and painting (hence the title of the book), the two subjects he studied in school. But almost all of the attributes he described hackers and painters as having in common apply equally well to writers: we get better through practice. Good essays are typically developed by “sketching”: repeatedly trying and discarding different ways of describing the same thought. Yet he spends very little time talking about writing as a craft akin to hacking and painting.

Which is a shame, because he’s a very good writer. His prose is sparse, efficient, and crystal clear. And a lot of fun to read. I encourage you to get a copy.

Update: One caveat I should add: the book is likely to be more interesting to geeks than the rest of the world. The first half of the book will be of interest to a broad audience, but in the second half of the book, he spends a lot of time looking at features of a good programming language. For non-geeks who are interested in a peek at what geeks argue about, this could be an interesting read, but for most people who haven’t programmed before, I doubt that would be very interesting.

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