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What's on your (virtual) coffee table?

(Click for the full-size picture; sorry for the bandwidth)

One of the best ways to get to know someone is to look at their bookshelf. Or at least their coffee table. I heard a story (can't remember where) about a new manager who was taking over a role where he knew the team was unhappy about the situation. Rather than do the usual "let me introduce myself" speech, this manager walked into the conference room with a pile of books he was reading, or that had been favorites, and laid them on the table and said something like, "Here, take a look at these and you'll know more about me than I could ever explain. Borrow anything you like."

I thought that was a very cool story. I consider a lot of what's on my bookshelf to be private, but that's what coffee tables are for... to have books for visitors to look at and play with, that you're willing to share with the outside world, and that you like having close at hand.

People have been asking for some of my favorite books, so rather than list them all with links (sorry, too lazy tonight), I put them on the coffee table and took pictures. If there are any you can't see the titles on or can't find on Google or Amazon, just ask and I'll get a link. You'll notice there's very little fiction. That tells you two things about me--I'm far more often reading non-fiction, but also I have a policy to pass on all fiction books that I read, so I keep very few around. But there are a couple of favorites I will keep forever including Neil Gaiman's Stardust, and a book of short stories by Dan Simmons.

The two other books not shown, but that I usually keep around (I keep buying copies for people) are Girlfriend in a Coma, by Douglas Coupland. And Sailing to Byzantium a book of stories by Robert Silverberg that includes my favorite sci-fi story, of the same name as the book. That I love sci-fi is now rather obvious...

For fun, I keep coming back to the Bunny Suicides (not for everyone, but I love them.)

Of all the books on my coffee table (real or virtual), my most precious is my autographed copy of Machine Beauty by David Gelernter, although I'm amazed that not that many people seem to love the book as much as I do. The small-world freakish thing is that almost half a decade after I first read it, I end up with a co-author (Eric) whose work is talked about in the book.

Another unexpected favorite is Within the Stone, by Bill Atkinson. You probably know him as one of the original creators of the Macintosh (including creation of the ground-breaking MacPaint and Hypercard software), but here is an example of coder-turned-artist. These photos are some of the most spectacular I've ever seen--he pioneered a way of both taking and digitally preparing the photos for print. This book is great for photography, nature, or fractal fans.

The rest of the books are those I'm either reading (or referring to) currently for the work that I do, or that I just like having around for inspiration or ideas. Usually they're stacked next to or around the coffee table. I also didn't include some of the ones I most often link to (like those from Don Norman or Roger Schank).

So, what's on your virtual or real coffee table?

Posted by Kathy on February 12, 2006 | Permalink


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» Whats on your coffee table from The Chicken Coop
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Tracked on Feb 12, 2006 9:53:37 PM

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Boy, I really want a coffee table now. Shockingly, all I have is an office full of stuff piling up.... (I know, I know – I'm getting to it! *Famous last words*)

Looks like a rather fun amalgamation of books there! I see several I'd really love to getting around to read.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 12, 2006 7:23:14 PM

(Again, famous last words.)

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 12, 2006 7:28:53 PM

Quite an impressive list. I have a few of them, and a few I've not heard of before. Thanks for sharing the inside view!

Posted by: Phil Gerbyshak | Feb 12, 2006 7:36:01 PM

Let's see ...

Head First HTML w/ CSS & XHTML (billmietelski.com needs a *lot* of work).

Then there's Head First Java (for our learning group :)

Oh yeah, SCJP Sun Certified Programmer for Java 5 Study Guide (I heard a rumor that it was pretty good)

And finally, there's an open spot I'm saving for Creating Passionate Users ;)

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Feb 12, 2006 8:00:49 PM

Michael Porter's 'Competitive Advantage of Nations'
David Allen's 'Getting things done' (I noticed it on your table too)
Soon - Guy Kawasaki's 'Art of the Start'
Harvard Business Review (I'm at least 4 issues behind!)
QOOP Photo books (see the Flickr site for details) of my New Zealand trip and my daughter's first 21 years
Fiction - not much these days, but anything by John Le Carre and Carl Hiassen, and I've just read the latest Janet Evanovich (I know it's a bit trashy, but she IS funny!)

Sorry - no HeadFirst stuff - yet!

Posted by: Ric | Feb 12, 2006 10:03:34 PM

A lot of science fiction and fantasy (both pulpy and meatier stuff) and a ton of tech books on things like Python (Learning Python and the Python cookbook), C++ (The C++ Programming Language, Special Edition), general programming (Code Complete 2nd Edition, Pragmatic Programmer), just recently went on a UI spree, and just tonight I ordered Head First Java 2nd and Head First Design patterns as I'm looking to pick up some Java for a more UI friendly language then any I'm currently working in.

What's amusing is my day job is programming on a mainframe in the RPG programming language...

Posted by: Patrick Sullivan | Feb 12, 2006 10:31:08 PM

Mine would be the Pickaxe book, "Agile Web Development with Rails", "Java 2 Sun Certified Programmer & Developer for Java 2", "Head First HTML w/ CSS & XHTML", Wrox' "Beginning XML" and "Beginning Java 2", Oreilly's "Sed & awk", "NLP in 21 Days" & The two Mind Gym books, which I'm currently reading.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Feb 12, 2006 11:09:31 PM


Posted by: Dima Kuchin | Feb 12, 2006 11:42:31 PM

I am MENTAL excited about this post, as I am a book fiend! In recent years, I've switched most of my consumption over to library borrowing (though certain books must stay with me as reference).

I've read about 40% of what you have displayed there, and have launched my library request window in another tab to snag more for later.


Chris of [chrisbrogan.com]

Posted by: Chris Brogan... | Feb 13, 2006 12:34:21 AM


Indeed man /woman is know by the books s/he reads :-)

PS: I'm writing some stuff about "Future of IT" kinda series on my blog. There I will be covering "virtualized workplace" (among other stuff).

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Feb 13, 2006 2:44:18 AM

Nice pictures!

Having just received my Headfirst Design Patterns this weekend this is a nice piece of synchronicity: any book that references both Christopher Alexander and the Cocteaus and whose authors reading Jeff Hawkins is pretty cool. Good job!

Kathy, you mention Schank: any book in particular, he sounds intriguing. I'd love to read more into the cognitive/educational aspects of the Headfirst series.

My real coffee table would be for the more visual, so Libbrecht's Snowflake, some Maplethorpe/Don Mcculum/ Ansel Adams, or Alexander's Nature of order, though the B&W pictures in Timeless are just as nice, and it sits so well in the hand :^)

Preferring non-fiction, books I keep coming back to are Isaacs book on Dialogue, Capra's Web Of Life, The Nature of Order (it is 2000 pages :) and Jamshid Gharajedaghi's Systems Thinking book: the complex re-combination(?) of biology, computing and beauty seems to mix well. My one excursion into non-fiction in the past year was the Time Travellers Wife which was fun.

Posted by: ken | Feb 13, 2006 3:53:38 AM

Great post)!
I'll make a photos of my books this evening, and will trackback this post!

Posted by: Dmitry Linkov | Feb 13, 2006 4:47:14 AM

Interesting! We are all influenced by the same little circle of thought leaders. WOM in action. I have read 7 of these books. I assume you bought "Flow", "Understanding comics" and "Story" after reading "a whole new mind". So it boils down to Daniel Pink, Chan Kim, Seth Godin and James Surowiecki as some of the wavemakers of the moment.

Your books really show who you are or who you aspire to be. I love to quick scan the book shelf when I meet a new person! Somebody who is interested is usually interesting. There used to be a free "virtual bookshelf" to display on blogs but I couldn't find it anymore. Showing a picture does a good job, too.

I enjoy reading your blog! Passion Pilots rule!

Posted by: Jan | Feb 13, 2006 9:27:15 AM

I just gotta draw folks attention to Mapping the Mind -- check it out! It's great to see it on someone else's coffee table...


Posted by: Adam Marsh | Feb 13, 2006 9:38:19 AM

If you enjoyed Story and The Written Journey (good books both), then I strongly recommend The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus.

If you enjoyed On Intelligence or the other books on the mind, check out Society of Mind by Marvn Minsky.

Understanding Comics has a good sequel.

Other books to read: The Victorian Internet, Freakonomics and, finally, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. :)

Posted by: Dave Goodman | Feb 13, 2006 9:59:10 AM

Bunny Suicides is the best!

My coffee table has a big hole in it where "Creating Passionate Users" should be (wink, wink, nudge, nudge...)

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Feb 13, 2006 10:56:01 AM

I'd like to point out an older book which has helped me out quite a bit:

Mastery: The Keys To Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard

Don't let the shmaltzy subtitle color your thinking. This is a great book if you are looking to push past ordinary performance into the "Kick Ass" zone in any endeavor.

Not that you need it Kathy, your already in the "Kick Ass" zone!

Posted by: David Lains | Feb 13, 2006 11:16:45 AM

Just to add my five cents: I was completely swept away by The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman lately.

Posted by: Jan Korbel | Feb 13, 2006 11:18:31 AM

Wow -- you guys have some fun stuff on your tables.

Ken, I like just about anything by Roger Schank, from both of his *modes* -- his much earlier artificial intelligence days, and his more recent "learning" days. My favorite is still "World class e-learning".

JAN: Actually "Flow" and "Understanding Comics" were a required reading assignment seven years ago, when I was doing computer games. "Story" was one I'd been wanting, but you're right -- it was Dan Pink's book that motivated me to get it. Wisdom of Crowds I got after hearing James' wonderful keynote at ETech.

If I could pick just one book that has the most to teach us about passionate users, it would be "Flow".

I think you're right about the small(ish) circle of those who influence things we read. But I'm lucky enough to live near a city with one of the most fabulous indie HUGE bookstores (Tattered Cover, Denver), so I'm always stumbling on books I wouldn't have otherwise seen. I have to admit that the Amazon "people who bought..." and "you might be interested in..." has started to become a fairly significant part of my book scavening.

DAVE: Whew -- I'd forgotten all about Society of Mind, but it was a mind-bending read for me in 1995. As for the "Oringins of consciousness...", now THAT was a--how do I put it--*interesting* read. I thought he had a great way of walking you through his theory step-by-step but then there would suddenly be this HUGE cliff where he would say, "So if this is true and that is true, then *obviously* this other thing is true..." and I'd never quite make the leap. But it was one of those books that gets your brain going. The one book that sort of fits in here was "Goedel, Escher, Bach" and I have to say that I've never gotten past the first half of chapter 2. I keep trying every few years, and everyone says it's worth it, but I'm not sure I have the intellect (truth be told, I'm pretty certain I do NOT). Also, everyone tells me to read some Feynman books.

Thanks for both reminders... it seems you made some good deductions about me from the books I showed. I listened to Freakanomics on my iPod, but I think I need the printed version because it was quite intense. I have the Scott McCloud sequel, but I didn't feel it was as relevant for me since it was more about the *business* of comics. I'll take both your recommendations for the "Comic Toolbox", and the "Victorian Internet" since you've almost scarily nailed me.

DAVID: I will take your recommendation for the Leonard book -- that's one I hadn't heard of.

JAN: Thanks for the "World is Flat" pointer. I heard the guy on NPR, but I haven't got the book yet, so I just bumped it up my list.

KEN: your table sounds more visually appealing than mine for sure. I also like Capra's book, and I loved the movie "Mind Walk". I periodically go through a weird science mode (hence the "Strange Matters" book), but I've been more into the brain the last couple of years, so the physics has taken a back seat. As for the Time Traveler's Wife, it was one of the *very* few books that got me a bit teary. I stayed up very late at night to read it. The other one I loved in that vein (sort of) was "The Dogs of Babel".

I have to say it's pretty fun to hear that one of my books is on a few of your tables. I've known a few folks who've used it to line their bird cage... ; )

And yes, I'm just restarting my push to finish "creating passionate users", after taking that loooooong health break. These comments have motivated me.

Keep the recommendations coming!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 13, 2006 12:18:09 PM

On my coffee table... it's more about professional photography and replicating darkroom techniques digitally. I actually spent most of Saturday putting the technical and management stuff on Amazon Marketplace. There's a season for this stuff, letting the ebb and flow take its course. The five year plan for a career change is now in full swing.

My headphones are a different matter. iTunes has spoilt me rotten with Talking Heads, Jerry Douglas, Peter Gabriel, Stanley Clarke and Level 42.

Posted by: Jason Bell | Feb 13, 2006 1:39:31 PM

Here, following a purge selling my "death row" bookcase on Amazon, I have a fairly eclectic mix including Deming, Dilbert, Open Source stuff (Cathedral and the Bazaar), Don't Make me Think, The Humane Interface (Raskin), Commonsense Direct Marketing by Drayton Bird (the DM bible), Cluetrain, Agile Development with Rails, Head First HTML and... Banksy. See www.banksy.co.uk - graffiti with a touch of class:-)

Posted by: Ian Waring | Feb 13, 2006 2:22:54 PM

I forgot to throw in some SF:

Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (and Stand on Zanzibar),
The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D Simak (and Way Station)
Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

Posted by: Dave Goodman | Feb 13, 2006 4:56:00 PM

On my virtual coffee table:

The Smartest Guys in the Room (Enron story)

Mind Wide Open - Steven Johnson
Everything Bad is Good for You - Steven Johnson

War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us the Death - Normon Solomon

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

Le Rhinocéros - Eugene Ionesco

The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins

The Cluetrain Manifesto

Posted by: Michael G. R. | Feb 13, 2006 5:58:02 PM

Have you read Mind Hacks? Neat tips and tricks for usability and how the brain works.

Touching the void is amazing! The movie is pretty good too.

Keep on bloggin!


Posted by: Andre Charland | Feb 13, 2006 7:26:21 PM

Some cool books there. I really loved Flow and continue to use it. Also Like the Gaiman. I'll look at some of the other books and see what I need to read. Thanks.

Posted by: Paul | Feb 14, 2006 9:57:54 AM

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