Donald Knuth and The Art of Computer Programming

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

Donald Knuth published Volume 1 of The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP) in 1968 (1), four Volumes and several editions later, Knuth continues this project. My own experiences descending the computer science rabbit hole I’ve read Knuth quoted more than anyone. My studies have left me feeling he is the most respected individual in the industry. The New York Times describes Knuth as “The Yoda of Silicon Valley” (2).

Algorithms pre-date computers, the computer age has swelled the lexicon of algorithms, they are the energy at the heart of computing (3). Your favourite bookseller will offer many options where the title includes both algorithm and cookbook. Recipe (4) is an apt likeness to this mathematical process.

With enthusiasm, the New York Times says, “… The Art of Computer Programming is the Bible of its field…” (2). I believe in short order we will consider TAOCP a 20th century Rosetta Stone. This is a beautiful collection. In the preface of Volume 1, Knuth describes computer programming as an aesthetic experience resembling poetry (5). I add, TAOCP is poetry.

Volume 1, Third Edition dated 1995, quotes Bill Gates, “Things have changed in the past two decades” (5). I wonder if his offer on the Volume’s sleeve “If you think you’re a really good programmer… read [Knuth’s] Art of Computer Programming… You should definitely send me a resume if you can read the whole thing” (5) still applies.

The collection now has 4 completed books and many facsimiles, the facsimiles correct and add content that will encompass further Volumes. Knuth laid out ten chapters for TAOCP. Knuth had planned 2 chapters per Volume. The 2 units per Volume were in a fashion circumvented with Volume 4 (1), which will span several Volumes when complete with a letter representing the ordering. So far only 4A (6) is complete.

Volume 1. Fundamental Algorithms (5)

  • Chapter 1. Basic Concepts
  • Chapter 2. Information Structures

Volume 2. Seminumerical Algorithms (7)

  • Chapter 3. Random Numbers
  • Chapter 4. Arithmetic

Volume 3. Sorting and Searching (8)

  • Chapter 5. Sorting
  • Chapter 6. Searching

Volume 4. Combinatorial Algorithms (1)

  • Chapter 7. Combinatorial Searching
  • Chapter 8. Recursion

Volume 5. Syntactical Algorithms (1)

  • Chapter 9. Lexical Scanning
  • Chapter 10. Parsing

Volume 1, Fundamental Algorithms (5) begins with a lengthy treatise on Maths. My experiences with this “introduction” were fascination and overload. Knuth, along with Ronald Graham and Oren Patashnik, created Concrete Mathematics in 1994 (9) addressing the needs of readers. Concrete Mathematics expands content from the first chapter in the same ordering, like a webpage expansion marker. I’ve worked through the early chapters of Concrete Mathematics treading water. By chapter 5, swamped, I tapped out.

The second chapter of Volume 1 (5) interested me most. After the first chapter, concerns bubbled up whether TAOCP would be an enjoyable use of my time. My concerns subsided. The second chapter was the most engaging and intuitive of the content I consumed. Chapter 2 is a detailed examination of data structures. Online forums show a first pull to bypass data structures and dive into algorithms, myself included. Stated earlier, algorithms are the energy of the heart of computing (3). Steven Skiena (10) describes data structures as the heart. Skiena advocates to start with data structures and build around them (10).

Volume 2, Seminumerical Algorithms (7) hold little that interests me, with regret I have skipped this Volume.

Volume 3, Sorting and Searching (8) heightened my interest in TAOCP again. Knuth’s deep dive into the history and specific details of each algorithm shines here. Sorting and searching algorithms are ubiquitous from my experience of learning computer science. Study of these algorithms at this level was empowering.

I’m not able to give a firsthand description of Volume 4A (6), Combinatorial Algorithms (8) as it stands untouched on my reading shelf.

Volume 5. Syntactical Algorithms (1) remains unreleased.

For TAOCP Knuth created a fictional computer system, MIX (5). In Volume 1 he describes this machine and even developed machine and assembly languages for the fictional computer. In Volume 4A Knuth has given us an updated system MMIX (6). Martin Ruckert wrote The MMIX Supplement (11), which translates algorithms from Volume 1–3 into the new MMIX assembly language. A working MMIX emulator exists (12).

The TAOCP is far from complete. Knuth’s age, in his 80s (13), begs whether he will complete TAOCP in his lifetime. My memory serves a dedicated group of scientists helping Knuth have pledged to finish the collection. I haven’t been able to find a source for this statement.

In conclusion, I recommend The Art of Computer Programming boxed set Volumes 1–4A published by Addison Wesley in 2011 (14) as a superb addition to the bookshelf of anyone with a keen interest in technology. I’ve relished my experiences reading TAOCP. Even with my profession in another field, this collection’s shear physical beauty and the seminal content has been well worth my time.

1 - Donald Knuth The Art of Computer Programming Homepage

2 - New York Times — Donald Knuth Computers and Algorithms Programming

3 - Introduction to Algorithms (Wikipedia)

4 - Algorithm (Wikipedia)

5 - The Art of Computer Programming Volume 1 (Goodreads)

6 - The Art of Computer Programming Volume 4A (Goodreads)

7 - The Art of Computer Programming Volume 2 (Goodreads)

8 - The Art of Computer Programming Volume 3 (Goodreads)

9 - Concrete Mathematics (Wikipedia)

10 - Algorithm Design Manual (Goodreads)

11 - The MMIX Supplement (Goodreads)

12 - MMIX Homepage

13 - The Art of Computer Programming Volumes 1–4A (Goodreads)

14 - Donald Knuth Homepage

Lover of life, knowledge seeker of many categories. I dive in headfirst.