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The art of computer programming
Knuth D., Addison-Wesley Professional, Boston, MA, 2006. Type: Book
Date Reviewed: Sep 25 2006

[Ed. Note: This is an introduction to a series of reviews covering the recent updates to Donald Knuth’s seminal work, The art of computer programming. Please click the links at the end of the review to be taken to the review of each volume/fascicle.]

Some three-and-a-half decades ago, Donald Knuth began to write and publish the work that would eventually become one of the most seminal of all publications in computer science. He called the work The art of computer programming, which is ironic because what he actually did was turn computer programming from the art form that it was into a science (of course, he did not do this alone, but his work was certainly one of the most important foundation stones).

Originally, the work was to include seven volumes. Until now, only the first three have actually been produced, as the entire set proved to be too ambitious a project at that time. The complete set, as intended, was to be:

Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms

Volume 2: Seminumerical Algorithms

Volume 3: Sorting and Searching

Volume 4: Combinatorial Algorithms

Volume 5: Syntactical Algorithms

Volume 6: Theory of Languages

Volume 7: Compilers

Knuth has begun the process of producing Volume 4. He has chosen to do so in a unique manner, as one might have expected from him. The volume is being released in installments, called fascicles. This means that we do not need to wait until the entire project is complete, but get to see it in parts as Knuth progresses. This will allow Knuth to solicit additions, emendations, and corrections from the reading public so that the final result of the project can be of the highest quality possible. He has a few other surprises for us as well.

This introduction is the first in a series of reviews in which I shall try to do justice to this work and its importance, and place it in its proper perspective. Each of these reviews is intended to provide the reader with the context in which each fascicle and/or book can best be used (and in certain cases, where I use it). This introduction is an overview of the series to present its context.

The first question that must be asked is, “Can a work of this ‘age’ be relevant?” My answer to that is an unequivocal and resounding, “Yes.” So much so, that in a new software engineering curricula just written for a new college degree, I have included Knuth’s work as the required book for no fewer than four different courses (that is the current version, before update).

Clearly, some of what is presented in the original is dated material. Knuth recognizes this. In the next review in this series, I discuss Fascicle 1 and what it does to rectify this. I should add that none of what was said in the original has become incorrect; mostly it is an issue of modernity (which, in a rapidly advancing field such as computing, is not a trivial issue).

One of the most fascinating aspects of Knuth’s work, at least for me as an author, is its vibrancy. As one reads the text, any sensitive person cannot help but notice how he succeeds beautifully in communicating his tremendous excitement and love for the subject matter. Anyone new to academia should read his work as a lesson in beautiful writing techniques; I learn every time I pick up one of Knuth’s books.

Another item of interest, though an apparently small item to some perhaps, is that Knuth takes trouble with each name he references. As a responsible author, he references very extensively. For each author referenced, Knuth serves up his name both in English and in that person’s language (Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, and so on). Is this a triviality or a game? I don’t think so. I think that manners are always important, and care in this aspect shows care in the work as a whole, and is to be much admired.

The art of computer programming was, and continues to be, a work of art to be treasured by our entire community. I am humbled by the opportunity afforded to me to be its reviewer.

Review of Volume 1, Fascicle 1

Review of Volume 4, Fascicle 2

Review of Volume 4, Fascicle 3

Review of Volume 4, Fascicle 4

Reviewer:  Mordechai Ben-Menachem Review #: CR133340
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