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on April 25, 2004
I bought the 2nd edition of the book.
This book takes you to the Basics of Programming: Problem definition, Algorithm design , choosing the correct data structures, Assertions, Performance considerations during Design and coding, Code Tuning, Squeezing the space.
Though the examples are mainly based on searching and sorting and other primitive programming problems, the fundamental concepts and conclusions at the end of each column, are still valuable and hold true as they are 2 decades ago.
The examples and the exercises are challenging and enjoyable. But, don't expect things related to modern programming like related to High Level Programming languages or Databases, this is purely a Basics book focussing on techniques of solving the problems the simplest and the best way.
Some of the gem quotes or conclusions from the book are:
"Coding skill is just one small part of writing correct programs. The majority of the task is problem definition, algorithm design and data structure selection."
"Defining the problem is about ninety percent of the battle"
Characteristics of a good Aircraft(or a good program) - "Simple, few parts, easy to maintain, very strong"
"A designer knows he has arrived perfection not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to takeaway."
"Good programmers sit back and wait for an insight rather than rushing forward with their first idea"
"A proper view of data does indeed structure programs. Before writing code good programmers thoroughly understand the input, the output and the intermediate data structures around"
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on November 30, 2001
This book is timeless because it discusses recurring problem situations with elegance, clarity, and insight. The book is about thinking and problem-solving more than it is about the particular circumstances it discusses.
For instance, the very first chapter ("Cracking the Oyster") would seem to be about the problem of sorting on disk: surely an archaic concern in these days of 1+GB RAM and 100 GB online media on PCs. But that would entirely miss the point, which Bentley clearly summarizes for us in the "principles" section of this chapter:
* "Defining the problem was 90 percent of this battle..."
* Select an appropriate data structure
* Consider multiple-pass algorithms
* A simple design: "a designer knows he has arrived at perfection not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." -- St. Exupery
This advice might look like a string of old, worn-out chestnuts as set forth above. But within the context of the specific problem, we can see how the design challenges and solutions follow each other, through several iterations, culminating in a pretty solution, nicely illustrating the principles, and suggesting their relevance to other problems, too.
A thoughtful programmer, no matter whether her domain is machine language or OODBMSes, will come away from any chapter in this book full of new ideas and inspiration.
Problems (good ones) after each section encourage the kind of rumination that is necessary to derive the most from this book. Every few years I take it (and its companion, "More Programming Perals") off the shelf and dip into it again, and always come away enlightened.
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on March 5, 2016
I find the changes made for the second edition quite perplexing. The original was all about walking through the experiences of a capable programmer as he made deep realizations about the nature of his work. The changes to remove outdated references have made the stories feel synthetic and a bit disjointed in a way that hurts those goals.

Plus there are a number of little perplexing changes.

- The book is printed with a very small margin and wide lines of thin font, which combine to really hurt readability. The original was a much prettier book
- The book added more questions that are in reality just apocryphal stories, rather than removing than removing the perplexing ones already there
- The new segments on things like "using spreadsheets and databases" which became dated immediately in a way none of the original text has

Despite these issues most of the content of the original is still in there somewhere, so I couldn't possibly give it less than 3 stars. However I would implore you not to buy the updated edition unless you really want to see the few bits of new content.
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on June 17, 2000
The thirteen columns in this book appeared in the Communications of the ACM between 1983 and 1985. There can't be more than a couple of technical books on computing from that era that are still worth reading. Kernighan & Ritchie's book, "The C Programming Language", is one that springs to mind; this book is definitely another, and will probably outlast K&R as it has almost no ties to existing or past hardware or languages.
What Bentley does in each of these columns is take some part of the field of programming--something that every one of us will have run into at some point in our work--and dig underneath it to reveal the part of the problem that is permanent; that doesn't change from language to language. The first two parts cover problem definition, algorithms, data structures, program verification, and efficiency (performance, code tuning, space tuning); the third part applies the lessons to example pseudocode, looking at sorting, searching, heaps, and an example spellchecker.
Bentley writes clearly and enthusiastically, and the columns are a pleasure to read. But the reason so many people love this book is not for the style, it's for the substance--you can't read this book and not come away a better programmer. Inefficiency, clumsiness, inelegance and obscurity will offend you just a little more after you've read it.
It's hard to pick a favourite piece, but here's one nice example from the algorithm design column that shows how little the speed of your Pentium matters if you don't know what you're doing. Bentley presents a particular problem (the details don't matter) and multiple different ways to solve it, calculating the relationship between problem size and run time for each algorithm. He gives, among others, a cubic algorithm (run time equal to a constant, C, times the cube of the problem size, N--i.e. t ~ CN^3), and a linear algorithm with constant K (t ~ KN). He then implemented them both: the former in fine-tuned FORTRAN on a Cray-1 supercomputer; the latter in BASIC on a Radio Shack TRS-80. The constant factors were as different as they could be, but with increasing problem size the TRS-80 eventually has to catch up--and it does. He gives a table showing the results: for a problem size of 1000, the Cray takes three seconds to the TRS-80's 20 seconds; but for a problem size of 1,000,000, the TRS-80 takes five and a half hours, whereas the Cray would take 95 years.
The book is informative, entertaining, and will painlessly make you a better programmer. What more can you ask?
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Without any doubt, my favorite article in _Communications of the ACM_ in the 1980's was the regular 'Programming Pearls' articles by Jon Bentley. When the first edition of these collected gems was published, I read it with great delight. Now, over a decade later, a second edition has been published, containing the same problems with additional modifications and notations. Given the enormous changes in programming since the mid 80's, your first reaction might be that this book is dated and therefore irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Elegant solutions to complex programming problems are free from the rot of time. Programming is a thought process largely independent of the notation used to write it down. The solutions are sketched and explained rather than coded, and the solutions are complete. There is a certain mystique about taking a complex problem, finding an initial solution and then refining it down until it kicks some big time. There are some major lessons in program refinement explained in these solutions.
Coding a binary search is covered quite extensively, which may seem like a waste of space, as this problem was solved decades ago. However, that solution took decades to get right, and this is one of those "separates the coders from the key bangers" type of problem. Other problems examined include performance tuning, squeezing space and program correctness. While the improvement in the performance of the hardware has been astounding since these solutions were written, that does not make them obsolete. The complexity of the programs that we now build has risen even faster, so performance and space considerations are just as critical.
Some problems were here at the beginning and will still be here at the end. Even though there may be canned code to handle them, these problems are generic enough that the solutions can be applied elsewhere, so we must learn how to solve them. Understanding these problems and their solutions will give you a fundamental skill set that will serve you well for a long time.
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on May 8, 2015
This book (together with More Programming Pearls) shares #3 in my all time Top 100 Favorite Programming, Computer and Science books:

Classic programming book. Jon Bentley knows how to write clearly and enthusiastically about algorithms. This book is timeless and it teaches you how to reason about problems, break them apart, and efficiently implement the solutions. You'll pass the Google interview if you read and understand this book.

I just love the way Jon Bentley writes. I don't know what else to say. These two books really teach the basics of solving programming problems. It takes many years to master the basics in practice but these books teach the basics well. I once wrote a blog post ( about Jon Bentley's chapter in Beautiful Code that he based on a chapter on quick sort in Programming Pearls.
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on June 8, 2002
for programming to be effective it is to be divided into 3 the first stage a clear formulation of the problem and the expected perfomance is laid out.inthe 2nd stage a suitable programming language is the 3rd stage coding is stresses the need for search for the context under which the problem can be requires a cultivated laziness to outline solution ,which is akin to having an insight.there are no sure fire formulae to get this quickly.
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on November 7, 2001
this is a thinking man's book. Lots of puzzles to get you thinking about proper data structure design, choice of alrogithm, and optimization. I like how it doesn't 'dumb down' and explain every last detail. Bentley is also an entertaining writer. There are answers to select questions that appear at the end of each chapter.
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on February 5, 2002
Eu já havia lido os dois volumes da primeira edição, os quais considero de alto nível. A segunda versão está impecável. Tenho usado na preparação de aulas para cursos de graduação e recomendo a sua leitura a todos que se interessam por programação.
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on July 13, 2001
One of a few books I'd suggest every programmer read. For two reasons:
o the technical material is well-chosen and well-explained o the writing style is worthy of emulation
Overall, it's worthy of your bookshelf's space.
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