Essential Books Elon Musk Recommends
Elon Musk has maintained a steady love affair with books throughout his entire life. Long before assuming the helm of Tesla, revolutionizing online banking via Paypal, or launching SpaceX rockets into orbit, a pre-teen Elon was reading countless science fiction novels for up to 10 hours a day.
At 9 years of age, he finished the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and shortly thereafter, completed a six-month BASIC course in just three days.
“I didn’t really have a primary nanny or anything,” he remembers. “I just had a housekeeper who was there to make sure I didn’t break anything. I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets.”
Fast forward to 2001, when Musk visited Russia in search of a real-life space-faring projectile but deemed the equipment he found there overpriced and wasteful – taking into consideration, the rockets could only be used once.
Left with few alternatives, he settled for building his own NASA-grade spacecraft (just Elon things).
Rocket Science Books
Jim Cantrell, an aerospace consultant, became SpaceX’s first vice president of business development and Musk’s industry mentor as the company started up in 2002. He says that the world’s richest man literally taught himself rocket science by reading textbooks and talking to industry heavyweights.
During a conversation with Business Insider Cantrell revealed how he loaned Musk some good reads pertaining to the subject of rocket science. These works were titled Rocket Propulsion Elements, Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and International Reference Guide to Space Launch Systems.
It may go without saying, but none of them were ever returned to him, and Musk now has his ambitious eyes fixed towards establishing the first human colony on Mars – the natural progression of events after lending a friend several books, right.
“He would quote passages verbatim from these books. He became very conversant in the material,” Cantrell says, adding that Musk practically memorized the texts. “He is the smartest guy I’ve ever met, period. I know that sounds overblown. But I’ve met plenty of smart people, and I don’t say that lightly. He’s absolutely, frickin’ amazing. I don’t even think he sleeps.”
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired the world’s wealthiest man to the pinnacle of financial success, we’ve compiled a list of 20 books Elon Musk has read himself and would certainly recommend to others as well.
Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark
How will Artificial Intelligence affect crime, war, justice, jobs, society and our very sense of being human? The rise of AI has the potential to transform our future more than any other technology – and there’s nobody better qualified or situated to explore that future than Max Tegmark, an MIT professor who’s helped mainstream research on how to keep AI beneficial.
Source: This is one of the few books Elon Musk has written an editorial review on, he remarked, “This is a compelling guide to the challenges and choices in our quest for a great future of life, intelligence and consciousness – on Earth and beyond.”
Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom
The human brain has some capabilities that the brains of other animals lack. It is to these distinctive capabilities that our species owes its dominant position. If machine brains surpassed human brains in general intelligence, then this new superintelligence could become extremely powerful – possibly beyond our control.
This profoundly ambitious and original book breaks down a vast track of difficult intellectual terrain. After an utterly engrossing journey that takes us to the frontiers of thinking about the human condition and the future of intelligent life, we find in Nick Bostrom’s work nothing less than a reconceptualization of the essential task of our time.
Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes
The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.
Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.
Source: Elon Musk cited the book when explaining, the “same who tried to deny smoking deaths r denying climate change.”
Screw Business As Usual by Richard Branson
Richard Branson, one of the world’s most famous and admired business leaders, argues that it’s time to turn capitalism upside down – to shift our values from an exclusive focus on profit to also caring for people, communities, and the planet.
Source: A fan of his fellow billionaire’s books, Elon Musk once tweeted, “[I] Liked Screw Business as Usual a lot. This approach should be taken to heart by all, as it really is the smart move.”
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Who is John Galt? When he says that he will stop the motor of the world, is he a destroyer or a liberator? Why does he have to fight his battles not against his enemies but against those who need him most? Why does he fight his hardest battle against the woman he loves?
You will know the answer to these questions when you discover the reason behind the baffling events that play havoc with the lives of the amazing men and women in this book.
You will discover why a productive genius becomes a worthless playboy…why a great steel industrialist is working for his own destruction…why a composer gives up his career on the night of his triumph…why a beautiful woman who runs a transcontinental railroad falls in love with the man she has sworn to kill.
Atlas Shrugged, a modern classic and Rand’s most extensive statement of Objectivism – her groundbreaking philosophy – offers the reader the spectacle of human greatness, depicted with all the poetry and power of one of the twentieth century’s leading artists.
Source: “Very appealing if you’re a sophomore in college. It’s a counterpoint to communism and useful as such, but should be tempered with kindness,” Musk says.
The Complete Story of Civilization by Will Durant
The Complete Story of Civilization by Will Durant represents the most comprehensive attempt in our times to embrace the vast panorama of man’s history and culture.
Source: “Read The Story of Civilization by Will & Ariel Durant,” Musk tweeted in 2020, while also adding that the Age of Napoleon is his favorite volume so far. “The first books are a little dry. Gets much better when Ariel is co-author.”
Dune by Frank Herbert
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.
Source: With regard to Frank Herbert’s books, Elon Musk exclaims, “[the] Dune series by Herbert [is] also brilliant. He advocates placing limits on machine intelligence.”
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future – to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years.
To preserve knowledge and save humankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire – both scientists and scholars – and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.
The Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov are among the most influential in the history of science fiction, celebrated for their unique blend of breathtaking action, daring ideas, and extensive worldbuilding.
In Foundation, Asimov has written a timely and timeless novel of the best – and worst – that lies in humanity, and the power of even a few courageous souls to shine a light in a universe of darkness.
Source: “[The] Foundation Series & Zeroth Law are fundamental to [the] creation of SpaceX,” Musk has said.
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution.
Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies – all are here, vividly brought to life. History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, an eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
Source: Constantly learning from biographical books, Elon Musk tweeted around Christmas time in 2011, “[I] am reading Robert Massie’s book on Catherine the Great. Yeah, I know what you’re probably thinking … did she really f* a horse?”
Structures by J.E. Gordon
Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down is an informal explanation of the basic forces that hold together the ordinary and essential things of this world – from buildings and bodies to flying aircraft and eggshells. In a style that combines wit, a masterful command of his subject, and an encyclopedic range of reference, Gordon includes such chapters as “How to Design a Worm” and “The Advantage of Being a Beam,” offering humorous insights in human and natural creation.
Source: In an interview with Design and Architecture, Elon Musk noted, “there’s a good book on structural design called Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design.”
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
The great secret of our time is that there are still uncharted frontiers to explore and new inventions to create. In Zero to One, legendary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel shows how we can find singular ways to create those new things.
Doing what someone else already knows how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine.
Tomorrow’s champions will not win by competing ruthlessly in today’s marketplace. They will escape competition altogether, because their businesses will be unique.
Source: This is one of the few books Elon Musk has written an editorial review on, he remarks, “Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and Zero to One shows how.”
Lying by Sam Harris
In Lying, best-selling author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie.
He focuses on “white” lies – those lies we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort – for these are the lies that most often tempt us. And they tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.
Source: “Read ‘Lying’, the new book by my friend Sam Harris. Excellent cover art and lots of good reasons not to lie!” Musk has tweeted.
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson
Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, America’s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders.
He explores the wit behind Poor Richard’s Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.
In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin’s amazing life, showing how he helped to forge the American national identity and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.
Source: Musk said in 2011, “[I] am reading a great biography of Ben Franklin by Isaacson. Highly recommended.”
Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
This widely acclaimed biography of Stalin and his entourage during the terrifying decades of his supreme power transforms our understanding of Stalin as Soviet dictator, Marxist leader, and Russian tsar.
Based on groundbreaking research, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals the fear and betrayal, privilege and debauchery, family life and murderous cruelty of this secret world. Showing how Stalin’s triumphs and crimes were the product of his fanatical Marxism and his gifted but flawed character, this is an intimate portrait of a man as complicated and human as he was brutal and chilling.
Howard Hughes by Donald Barlett
Howard Hughes has always fascinated the public with his mixture of secrecy, dashing lifestyle, and reclusiveness. This is the book that breaks through the image to get at the man. Originally published under the title Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes.
Source: Having noticed some startling similarities between his own story and the life of Howard Hughes, Elon Musk calls this read “a cautionary tale.”
Deep Learning by Ian Goodfellow
Deep learning is a form of machine learning that enables computers to learn from experience and understand the world in terms of a hierarchy of concepts. Because the computer gathers knowledge from experience, there is no need for a human computer operator to formally specify all the knowledge that the computer needs.
The hierarchy of concepts allows the computer to learn complicated concepts by building them out of simpler ones; a graph of these hierarchies would be many layers deep. This book introduces a broad range of topics in deep learning.
The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a six-volume work by the English historian Edward Gibbon. It traces Western civilization from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium in the fifteenth century. Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings.
Source: Musk mentions “[The author]’s famous book” in an interview with the Good Time Club.
The Big Picture by Sean Carrol
In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level – and then how each connects to the other.
Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.
Source: Pertaining to the authors’ books, Elon Musk has commented, “Highly recommend anything by Sean Carroll.”
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations was published on 9 March 1776, during the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish Agricultural Revolution. It influenced a number of authors and economists, as well as governments and organizations.
Source: “Read Das Kapital when I was 14, incl cross-checking English translation of original German. Adam Smith FTW obv. Ironically, future automation will naturally lead to greater equality of consumption. Monopolies are true enemy of people. Competing to serve is good,” Musk says. “That is why it is critical to support competition. Excess profits draw in competitors who then drive down prices.”
Acts of Love by Talulah Riley
Bernadette is an expert at hiding the truth.
She has built her career as a journalist on her talent for lulling powerful men into a false sense of security, then exposing them in her ruthless profile pieces.
But in Radley Blake, she may have met her match. Immune to her charms, he seems to see through every layer of her carefully constructed act: right to the truth of who she is inside.
We think we’re looking for love – but what if it’s ourselves we need to find? Talulah Riley’s wonderful first novel is an irresistible will-they-won’t-they tale that asks how it is we can strive for independence, but still believe in destiny…
Source: “Congrats to Talulah Riley on her novel, ‘Acts of Love’! All characters – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional …” Musk tweeted on August 11, 2016.
If you enjoyed this guide to books Elon Musk recommends reading, be sure to check out or list of the 20 Books Jeff Bezos Recommends Reading!