What Is the Best Programming Book for Beginners?

I know, I know.  You’re here looking for the best programming book for beginners (if you came here from Google).  The one book to rule them all, as it were.

I wish I could give you that.  I wish anyone could.

But here’s the thing.  Programming is so involved — so complex — that anyone offering a book like that is selling you snake oil.

There are bootcamps and 4 year CS degrees dedicated to preparing you for a programming career.  No one book is going to stand in for that.  And that applies even if you’re looking for a hobby, rather than a career.

So what I’ll do in this post is make some book recommendations.  By the end, I’ll offer a lot of those.

But first, I’ll do something you won’t see in other posts about beginner programmer books.  I’ll give you a definitive sequence of books to read along with an explanation of why these books, in this order.  Then, I’ll offer the obligatory, “here’s all kinds of books you could read.”

What is the Best Programming Book for Beginners?

As I’ve said, I can’t tell you the book to read — the one to rule them all.  But I can definitively suggest the first to read:

This book, Eloquent Javascript, serves as an introduction to Javascript and, simultaneously, an introduction to programming concepts.  It also builds toward and walks you through your first project.

All of that combines to make it as good a candidate as any for getting started.

Learning to Program From Books: A Blueprint

Okay, I’ve claimed that this makes it a good candidate.  But if you’ve got a skeptic’s bone in your body, you’re probably already mouthing the words, “says you, prove it.”

There’s a Lot of Ground to Cover, and This Covers More Than Other Books

So I’ll state my case.  And then I’ll offer additional book recommendations.  But if you take nothing else from this post, go get yourself Eloquent Javascript.

The first thing to consider is that one doesn’t simply “learn programming.”  At a bare minimum, you have to pick a programming language to start with.  And there are a LOT of those.

And, beyond that, there are other considerations, particularly if you’re contemplating adopting programming as a career or side hustle.  Here are those considerations:

  1. Which programming language should you start and practice with?
  2. Beyond just making the computer go beep-boop when you want it to, how do you program well?
  3. How do you sign onto work for open source projects or find and interview for programming jobs?
  4. How do you prepare for and manage a career in programming?
  5. What is the best way to adapt to the corporate programming world?

I could probably go on, but hopefully you get the idea.   You’d struggle to cover all 5 points well in 5 books, let alone 1.

So, back to Eloquent Javascript.  My selection of this book provides its own answer to question (1), and a good one at that.  Javscript is a reasonably approachable language, and it’s also pacing the field in terms of popularity.  Learn it and you’ll have a marketable skill and be ready for web development.

In addition, that book addresses some of the other concerns in at least a passing way.  So, even though it’s holistically incomplete, it’s a good pick and less incomplete than most other things you could read.

Laying out a Learning Plan

But, let’s assume that you’re in this thing for the longer haul.  As the title promised, I’ve narrowed the field to one book, even if I’ve punted on the idea of “best.”  But what if you want to add more books to your reading list?

Here’s how I’d suggest approaching that.  Understand that there are categories of programming books, and pick accordingly.

(Bear in mind that these are not mutually exclusive — some, like Eloquent Javascript, might have a claim to more than one category.  But it’s fair to declare that a single category best describes them.)

Here are the categories that I think of, when it comes to programming books:

  1. Introductory general programming principles.
  2. Language/tech stack introductions and how-tos (or even more granular, covering something like a code editor or a specific library or framework).
  3. Books on becoming a better all-around programmer.  These are usually more intermediate/advanced than (1).
  4. Guides on applying for programming jobs and interviewing.
  5. Navigating corporate/professional software projects and teams.

Now, bearing that in mind, I can make a more detailed recommendation.  To get started, you need (1) and (2), either as separate books or combined.  But if you’re eyeing a development career, you need all of them.

For the rest of this post, I’ll recommend some books in each category.

  1. Introductory General Programming Principles
  2. Language/Tech Stack Introductions
    1. Front End/Web Development
      1. Javascript
      2. Ruby
      3. Python
      4. PHP
      5. HTML/CSS/Markup
    2. Enterprise/Corporate Languages
      1. C
      2. C++
      3. Java
      4. C# (.NET)
    3. Mobile Development
      1. Swift/iOS
      2. Android
  3. Improving as an All Around Programmer
  4. Interviewing and Applying for Programming Jobs
  5. Navigating Corporate/Professional Software Development Jobs

1. Introductory General Programming Principles

For this category, I’ll list books that help beginner and novice programmers, but that aren’t aimed at any specific tech stack.  In other words, these are books that speak to becoming a programmer without walking you through setting up your editor and writing code.

In your journey as a newbie, you would read these books as complements to the language/tech stack introductions.  Read them either in parallel with those, or immediately afterward.

Programming pearls is a book that has stood the test of time.  It’s easily consumable and structured as a sequence of lessons that help you with problem solving and generally thinking like a programmer.

The Self-Taught Programmer actually does walk you through a tech-stack introduction as part of its contents, but I’m including it here because it does more than that.  It reflects the journey and lessons learned from someone who self-taught entirely and wound up working for eBay.  It’s the author’s playbook.

2. Language/Tech Stack Introductions

In this (rather lengthy) section, I’m going to include books that help beginners get going in the tech stack of their choice.  My suggestion, if you’ll recall, was that you start with Javascript.  But not everyone starts with Javascript.

You may well have your own reasons for wanting to learn some other language/tech stack.  If that’s the case, just substitute one of the other books here for my recommendation of Eloquent Javascript.

Front End/Web Development

The first sub-section here includes so-called “front end” languages — languages/stacks that help you learn web development.

Web development represents one of the sectors of tech with the lowest barriers to entry.  Meaning, other disciplines in tech require more equipment or knowledge up front.  If you want to learn embedded systems, for instance, you’re going to need the actual, physical devices that you’ll program.

But web development? You just need your laptop and you can instantly start learning and getting visual feedback on the site you start to build.

Javascript

I’ve already mentioned Eloquent Javascript, but I’ll list a couple of other books here as well.

First up is Javascript and JQuery: Interactive Front-End Web DevelopmentIf you get this book, not only will you learn Javascript, but you’ll also learn JQuery — a long time, established framework within Javascript that simplifies a lot of common programming tasks.  The book is also, as it promises, very visual, so you’re not confronted with walls and walls of text as you learn.

Next, we’ve got a book in the “Head First” series: Head First Javascript Programming.  The Head First series is a tried and true series of books introducing you to programming languages and concepts, and you’ll see more of these throughout the guide.  Think of it as a very niche/specific “X for Dummies” in the programming world.

Ruby

Ruby is another programming language common to web development.  Unlike Javascript, Ruby is not a “front end” language, but a general purpose programming language that people use for web development.  You’ll encounter it a lot in startup circles, and you’ll also find that it’s often inseparable from its most popular framework, Rails.  So you’ll hear about “Ruby on Rails” (Ruby with the Rails web framework) almost as often as you’ll hear about Ruby itself.

First, consider Beginning Ruby.  This book isn’t just aimed at people that want to learn Ruby, but at beginner programmers as well.  It will serve to get you started with Ruby while introducing core concepts.

The other guide that I’ll offer here is Ruby on Rails Tutorial.  As I’ve previously mentioned, Ruby is often inseparable from Rails in web development contexts.  So if you’re looking to learn web development, you should strongly consider specifically learning Rails alongside Ruby.

Python

Similar to Ruby, Python is a general purpose language frequently used in web development.  But Python is also pretty popular among folks dealing in data analytics, statistics, and machine learning, making it quite versatile.

Here’s another in the Head First series: Head First Python.  These books are tried and true introductions to programming in a language, and this is a good place to start with Python.

Python Crash Course is yet another introductory book.  But this one contains lots of examples using the Django framework, which is reminiscent of the relationship between Ruby and Rails.  Django isn’t quite as obligatory or ubiquitous, but it is common and worth learning if you’re planning to do web development.

PHP

At this point, you may be noticing a theme.  Like Ruby and Python, PHP is a general purpose language that people frequently use for web development.  In fact, WordPress, the CMS for this blog, is written in PHP.

The Joy of PHP is a good choice for absolute beginners.  Not only does it provide a gentle introduction to the language itself, but it starts by teaching you some basics about HTML (more on that shortly).  It truly assumes no prior knowledge of programming.

PHP: A Beginner’s Guide is another book that will introduce you to the basics and get you going.  But it also has a lot of practical information about expnading on those basics to handle common real-world web development scenarios, like using extensions and working with databases.

HTML/CSS/Markup

Last up in the front end/web development category is the most “front-end-y” piece of all: HTML and markup development.  To briefly explain the distinction here, books about these technologies are not books about programming languages, per se.

HTML consists of “tags” and those tags are a way to represent visual formatting.  For instance, if I create the file basicfile.html and add “<b>Some important text</b>”, when you open that file in your browser, you’ll see Some important text in bold.

CSS is a more advanced way of working with HTML.  And together, they help define the visual experience of websites, whereas the programming languages I’ve already covered define the actual decision logic of the applications (e.g. processing your selection and displaying a price on an eCommerce site).

So let’s look at some good beginner options for learning to work with markup.

HTML & CSS: Design and Build Websites should look familiar.  It’s from the same author that wrote Javascript & JQuery.  It’s very visually appealing, which makes sense for a book about website design.

And, finally, we have HTML Beginner’s Crash Course.  Not only does this provide a nice introduction to HTML and CSS, but it teaches you web design principles as well.

Enterprise/Corporate Languages

In this section, I’ll list what I call the enterprise languages.  In some sense, this is an arbitrary distinction since some of these languages share plenty of commonality with the web development languages from the last section.

But my experience has been that these are the bread and butter languages that large companies tend to use throughout their organizations.  In other words, you’ll disproportionately encounter the languages above in startups, side projects, and other niche applications.  But if you want to work at an enterprise, you’ll probably find yourself working with one of the languages in this section.

C

There’s no beating around the bush here.  C is a tough first language, conceptually, compared to most others here.  C is a lot “closer to the metal,” meaning that you need to learn a fair bit about your computer’s innards to truly grasp it.

This isn’t meant to discourage you — it was my second language (immediately after C++).  But there’s a definite learning curve, so I’d only choose this if you want to get immediately into something for which C is uniquely suited, like embedded systems, or if you fully intend to prepare for difficult programming interviews.

The “Head First” series is always a good choice, and Head First C is no exception.  If you’re going to start with C as your first language, this book is a good choice.

C Programming: A Modern Approach specifically aims to teach people C when they have no prior programming experience.  As such, it’s the logical choice to include here.

C++

C++ is so-named because it’s actually a major expansion of the C programming language — one that makes it object oriented in nature.  So, while it isn’t fair to say that learning C++ means you’ll know C, there’s a good bit of overlap between these languages.

Industry veterans will tell you that the O-Reilly name and the animal on all of their covers are mainstays of the programming book industry.  So, it was just a matter of time until we got to one of these — C++ Pocket Reference in this case.

If you want to learn C++, learning from the guy that wrote the language, Bjarne Stroustrup, isn’t a bad choice.  He wrote Programming: Principles and Practice Using C++.  This is a book aimed to teach you to program, and to do it using C++.

Java

Java is another object oriented language, and it’s extremely common in enterprises all over the world.  I don’t have data to support this, but I’ve spent a lot of years consulting in the enterprise, and my personal experience is that Java is the most common language there.

It’s a general purpose language that can help you with just about anything, and works just about anywhere.

This seems like a good choice, huh?  It describes its exact purpose right in the title: programming basics for absolute beginners.  So if Java is your first language of choice, Java Programming Basics for Absolute Beginners is definitely worth a look.

Think Java is another O’Reilly selection.  And it also brings more to the table than just teaching you Java — it teaches you to think in code and algorithms.  You’ll find this particularly useful if you’re learning Java specifically to interview and work at companies as a professional programmer.

C# (.NET)

C# is similar to Java in many ways.  It was originally developed by Microsoft and exclusively intended for Windows operating systems.  But Microsoft has since open sourced the language and the framework and it is now truly general purpose and universal, like Java.

The title of this one is a little… ambitious.  But the intent is clear from the cover alone.  Learn C# in One Day aims to teach C# to complete programming beginners. It also aims to get you going quickly with fast feedback, hands on examples, and real-world projects.

Likewise, C# Programming in Easy Steps has a similar ambition.  It’s a practical application-driven book intended to teach you programming and every facet of the C# language as you go.

Mobile Development

The last major area of development that I’ll cover is mobile development.  While the line between mobile and web development has blurred somewhat over the years, creating so-called “native mobile” apps is still an important part of the broader programming ecosystem.

So, if you want to start your programming journey creating iOS or Android apps this is the section for you.

Swift/iOS

The lingua franca for Apple/iOS development is Swift.  It used to be a language called Objective-C, but I’m going to omit that, since the platform has moved to a language called Swift.  So here’s how to get started with Swift development.

First up is Swift Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide.  This is a very beginner-friendly book that has accessible demos and tutorials and walks you through not just Swift and iOS, but programming principles as well.

Similarly, Swift Essentials is another book that courts programming beginners.  It walks you through simple exercises to get you going and it includes information about targeting other devices as well, like the Apple Watch.

Android Development

The other major player in the mobile space is Android.  And Android is interesting in that Android developers use Java along with specialized frameworks.  Android development does not have its own proprietary/specific language.

Android Programming for Beginners says it all in the title.  In fact, if you zoom in on the lengthy subtitle, it actually says “starting from zero programming experience.”  So this certainly fits the bill for folks wanting to make Android development their first foray into programming.

Learning Java by Building Android Games is an interesting premise.  Most introductory Android books require prior knowledge of Java.  So let’s lean into that and go with an introduction to Java that features Android development examples.

3. Improving as an All Around Programmer

Alright, we’re finally through all of your options for a first and second book.  Once you’re through those, you’ll have a basic grasp of programming principles and enough knowledge of a language/stack to build applications.

At this point, you’re ready to start learning about what it means to be a programmer over the long haul.

Building applications over the course of a month or two is easy compared with building and maintaining them over the course of years.  To do the latter, you need to learn about how to keep your code clean, how to structure complex applications (often referred to as architecture) and generally how to conduct yourself as a software professional.

That’s what this section is all about.  These are books that will help you go from “someone that can bang out an application” to “professional programmer.”

The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master is one of my personal favorites in the software world.  It’s timeless, and what you get out of it is right in the title: deliberate ways to move to the top of your game.  This book contains a ton of practical advice.

Code Complete is another famous and iconic industry book.  It covers basically all aspects of professional programming in great detail (it’s a HUGE book).

Bob Martin’s Clean Code was a very influential book for me.  The last two tackle the subject of professionalism in software from kind of a holistic perspective.  This book is more focused, specifically, on the idea of how to write clean code that you (and others) can maintain for years.

As a professional programmer, you’ll work with legacy (old) code far more often than green field (brand new) code.  Working Effectively with Legacy Code is all about how to navigate and maximize that reality.

The last book I’ll cover in this category is Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code.  Similar to the last entry, it’s an iconic industry book that tackles the subject of evolving your code as you go, and making sure that it’s always as maintainable as possible.

I’m letting my own personal biases show a little here.  But as an avid proponent of test driven development (TDD), I think that Test-Driven Development by Example should be mandatory reading.

4. Interviewing and Applying for Programming Jobs

Up to this point, I’ve covered everything that you need in order to be a programmer.  This includes general introductory books, hands-on guides to getting started with tech stacks, and books to make you better at designing and implementing applications.

So now it’s time to move on to the corporate side of programming.  These books aim to help you with the coding interview, which is a notoriously challenging (and I, personally, would argue, stupid) process for less experienced developers.  Here are books that help you on this front.

Cracking the Coding Interview is a famous book in the industry.  Silicon Valley companies famously grill you about data structures and algorithms (and some other companies follow suit).  This book is all about how to handle that style of interview.

This book, Elements of Programming Interviews, actually starts you out with general interview walk-throughs and coaching before proceeding along to tactics.  This particular incarnation specifically targets C++, but other editions of this book target other stacks/languages.

Programming Interviews Exposed is a detailed guide to all aspects of job-seeking and interviewing for programmers.  It very much aims to help folks inexperienced with and new to the process.

Reviewers of Coding Interview Questions praise it for not assuming that you already have a detailed programming or CS background.  It helps you prepare for and wrangle these sorts of questions without assuming much about your background.

5. Navigating Corporate/Professional Software Development Jobs

The last major category that I’ll mention here is books that address corporate programming beyond the job interview.  These talk about the nature of software projects, project management, participating in teams, etc.

I’m listing them last because they’ll probably be the last thing in your prioritized journey.  But they’re no less interesting or important for that.

The Mythical Man Month is an absolute industry classic.  It talks about common problems that plague software teams, including the one referenced in the title: struggles with staffing and estimating time to complete projects.

Over the last 20 years, since the creation of the so-called Agile Manifesto, “agile” methodologies have emerged to become industry standard.  Agile Software Development: Principles, Patterns, and Practices, written by one of the authors of that manifesto, walks you through those methodologies.

The Clean Coder, written by the same author, guides you through what it means to be a “professional” programmer.  This includes lessons on giving and committing to estimates, adhering to standards about your code, and plenty more.

Ship It: A Guide to Successful Software Projects is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s a companion guide to how to create and deliver software efficiently and successfully.

Now It’s Up To You

That’s a LOT of books that I’ve just taken you through!

Of course, I don’t expect that you’ll read all of them by any stretch.  But I did want to give you a lot of options.

What I’d suggest doing is picking one from each major category and reading it, probably in order of the categories.

  1. Get a general feel for programming.
  2. Pick a stack and get started.
  3. Gain perspective on best practices.
  4. Prepare or professional interviews.
  5. Learn how to exist as a professional programmer.

But your mileage may vary.  I wanted to err on the side of giving you lots of options so that you can read their blurbs and reviews and pick the path best suited for you.

Learning to program can feel like boiling the ocean.  But if you pick a book, learn its lessons, and then move onto the next, you’re narrowing the problem and putting one foot in front of the other.

Best of luck to you!