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Elon Musk’s Favorite Books – 33 Titles from the Tesla Founder’s Reading List

Elon Musk Book List

A common attribute among exceptionally successful people is a voracious appetite for books. Leaders from Bill Gates to Oprah to Dave Ramsey attribute much of their success to their reading habits

Elon Musk is no different. In a 2009 New Yorker profile, he explained that he started reading in his youth to assuage his loneliness. As a boy in Pretoria, South Africa, Musk was a classic small, wise-cracking nerd. And in classic form, he sought refuge from his peers’ constant bullying by reading science fiction and fantasy novels. 

Scanning the list below will leave you with no doubt that Musk’s early reading shaped his thoughts on innovation and leadership, as well as his perspectives on science, business and human progress. Many of the books he cites as major early influences are classic works of science fiction that deal with the relationship between man and machine.

If you’re interested in the same course of study, we’ve scoured the web, his past interviews, and his Twitter feed to compile this complete list of Elon Musk book recommendations. The books below are categorized by genre and listed chronologically by their date of first publication.

Science Fiction

Reading science fiction broadens your horizons to imagine life beyond the limits of the current human experience. And recent neuroscience has revealed that fiction also grants its readers greater empathy, social skills and sensory stimulation.

In other words, our brains don’t make much of a distinction between our imagined experiences and real ones.

As the CEO of disruptive technology companies like SpaceX, The Boring Company and Tesla, it’s no wonder that Musk is so heavily influenced by classic sci-fi literature; many of these books were written during the Space Race, looking forward to the future of space exploration.

#1. The Machine Stops

Author: E.M. Forster
First published: 1909
Recommended by Musk here.

This classic short story describes a society in which humans no longer live on the surface of the earth, but in individual, subterranean rooms where all their needs are met by the all-powerful, deified Machine.

Travel is rare, and people communicate via videoconferencing to share ideas. As the Machine breaks down, society starts to crumble with it.

In light of the recent lockdowns, travel restrictions, and reliance on internet communication due to COVID-19, this piece is nothing short of prophetic.

#2. The Foundation Series

Author: Isaac Asimov
First published: 1942
Recommended by Musk here.

In this award-winning novel series from foundational sci-fi author Asimov, mathematician Hari Seldon predicts the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire and a Dark Age that will last 30,000 years.

In an attempt to reduce the crisis to a mere millennium, Seldon establishes two “Foundations” to preserve scientific knowledge and human civilization.

There are a total of seven books in the series, with the final edition being published in 1993. However, the first three books — usually referred to as The Foundation Trilogy — are widely considered the most important.

#3. Stranger in a Strange Land

Author: Robert Heinlein
First published: 1961
Recommended by Musk here.

Mike, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians, returns to earth after World War III. Although he is technically returning home, human society is strange and unknown to him.

He has ownership claims to Mars, and nurse Jill Boardman helps him escape the government whom she fears could harm him. He then starts a new religion based on Martian philosophy. 

#4. Dune

Author: Frank Herbet
First published: 1965
Recommended by Musk here.

The planet Arrakis is a barely inhabitable desert wasteland, and the only source of melange — more commonly referred to as “Spice” — a popular drug that extends life and allows for space navigation.

Dune chronicles the adventures of Paul Atreides and his family as they defend Arrakis from attack and navigate various intergalactic economic, political, religious and military factions.

#5. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Author: Robert Heinlein
First published: 1966
Recommended by Musk here.

The year is 2075, and the moon is a penal colony. Mannie, the son of a convict and an average computer technician, is unwittingly drawn into a revolution for lunar independence.

With the help of a self-aware computer named Mike, Mannie and his fellow moon inhabitants (called Loonies) fight for Earth to recognize the moon as an autonomous state.

#6. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream 

Author: Harlan Ellison
First published: 1967
Recommended by Musk here.

Computers created by the U.S., the Soviet Union and China have morphed into a supercomputer, called AM, which has become sentient. After nearly completing the elimination of all humans, AM’s only remaining objective is to torture the five remaining humans as revenge for its own existence.

Musk says this story gives him nightmares.

#7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Author: Douglas Adams
First published: 1979
Recommended by Musk here.

Musk says the lighthearted and comical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy helped him get through an existential crisis in his teens.

The book follows Arthur Dent, an Earthling who is rescued from Earth’s destruction by Ford Prefect, an alien who hitchhikes his way through the galaxy.

The center screen of the Tesla Roadster Musk launched toward Mars bears a quote from the book: “Don’t panic!”

#8. The Culture Series 

Author: Iain M. Banks
First published: 1987
Recommended by Musk here.

All work in “the Culture” — a society of humanoid species, aliens and advanced AI — is performed by machines.

In this post-scarcity utopia, humans have access to anything they want… provided they pledge allegiance to “the Minds” that control the Culture’s galactic interactions.

Of the 10 works in the series, Musk has specifically mentioned his admiration for The Player of Games (1988), Look to Windward (2000), and Surface Detail (2010).

#9. Dark City 

Author: Frank Lauria
First published: 1978
Recommended by Musk here.

In Dark City, even time, memory and truth are malleable. John Murdock wakes up with amnesia and finds himself the suspect of several murders.

Following clues, he uses his psychokinetic powers to attempt to clear his name and evade both police and The Strangers — extraterrestrials who use human bodies as hosts. 

#10. Daemon 

Author: Daniel Suarez
First published: 2006
Recommended by Musk here.

Brilliant game designer Matthew Sobol is dying of brain cancer and creates a “daemon” to be activated upon his death.

This series of stealthy, interconnected computer programs is designed to seize control of everything — from stock prices to vehicles — in order to create a new world order.

Detective Peter Sebeck must uncover the daemon’s dark purpose and stop it.

Business Books

Despite Elon Musk’s status as the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, he hasn’t recommended many business books — perhaps viewing himself as more of an inventor than an investor or businessman. That said, Musk does deem the following business and entrepreneurship books worth reading.

If you’re looking for business book recommendations, check out our roundup of Warren Buffet’s most recommended books and this list of the best business books of all time (as voted by 100 tops CEOs and entrepreneurs). 

#11. Screw Business as Usual

Author: Richard Branson
First published: 2011
Subtitle: Turning Capitalism into a Force for Good.
Recommended by Musk here.

The best businesses are the ones with a goal other than increasing their bottom line; ones that make the world a better place for the people in it.

Branson demonstrates this through several case studies, refuting many tenets of traditional capitalism and asserting that “doing good things for society is good for business.”

#12. Zero to One

Author: Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
Subtitle: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.
First published: 2014
Recommended by Musk on the back cover.

In Musk’s own words, “Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and Zero to One shows how.”

Thiel — who was Musk’s partner in co-founding PayPal — describes the modern economic lay of the land and discusses how to find the sweet spot in creating a company that addresses an unmet need in a revolutionary way.

Biographies

By reading about the lives of others, you can study their mistakes and shorten your own learning curve. Musk has a healthy appetite for biographies and stands on the shoulders of the following giants.

#13. Twelve Against the Gods

Author: William Bolitho Ryall
Subtitle: The Story of Adventure.
First published: 1929
Recommended by Musk here.

This book is a compilation of 12 seemingly unrelated historical figures, from Christopher Columbus to Muhammad to dancer Isadora Duncan.

What connects this group is the fact that each of these adventurers challenged conformity and the expectations of their day to achieve great heights.

Bolitho defines the adventurer as “an individualist and an egoist, a truant from obligations,” so it’s easy to see why Musk would relate to the people in the book.

#14. The Age of Napoleon 

Author: Will Durant and Ariel Durant
SubtitleThe Story of Civilization.
First published: 1975
Recommended by Musk here.

Somewhere between a history and a biography, The Age of Napoleon covers not only the rise and fall of the French emperor himself, but of the culture of France, the French Revolution, and other key historical players (such as English poets and Beethoven) on the international stage.

#15. Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness 

Author: Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
First published: 1979

It’s easy to see why Musk would take an interest in Howard Hughes: he was a business magnate and philanthropist, and he pushed the limits of air travel.

However, in a recent interview with CNN, Musk noted he didn’t want to follow Hughes’ descent into madness, abandoning hygiene and “peeing in jars.” 

#16. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Author: Walter Isaacson
First published: 2003
Recommended by Musk here.

This biography brings to life the personality and achievements of one of the best known American inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs and statesmen.

Despite Isaacson’s admiration for Benjamin Franklin, he chronicles his flaws as well as his accomplishments.

Musk especially appreciates the rags-to-riches theme of this story, and notes in a CNN interview that Franklin is “one of [his] heroes”.

#17. Einstein: His Life and Universe

Author: Walter Isaacson
First published: 2007
Recommended by Musk here.

This biography encapsulates the brilliant, quirky, non-conformist scientist and his many accomplishments. His childlike wonder and curiosity kept him pursuing the unknown.

The book delves into previously unresearched material to narrate his childhood experiences, struggles, and pursuance of knowledge until his last breath. 

#18. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Author: Robert Massie
First published: 2011
Recommended by Musk here.

This book delves into the story of Catherine the Great, who started life as Sofia Augusta Fredericka (the daughter of an obscure German noble) and ended up becoming Empress of Russia for over 30 years.

Massie captures both the political and the personal through Catherine’s eyes, giving the reader insight into her brilliant and determined leadership.

#19. Steve Jobs

Author: Walter Isaacson
First published: 2011
Recommended by Musk here.

Unlike his historical biography subjects, Isaacson interviewed Steve Jobs in person and at length for this book. This allowed Isaacson to portray Jobs’ brilliant (albeit dictatorial) leadership of Apple and groundbreaking innovation in all his blunt, feisty splendor.

Steve Jobs was a man who never thought he was wrong — and who, though audacious, usually turned out to be right in the long run. 

Artificial Intelligence

While Musk is an avid supporter of technological advancements, he is keenly aware of the flip side of the coin — the danger posed by unresearched and unchecked consequences of artificial intelligence.

While this danger underpins many of his favorite science fiction books, the selections below look at the topic from a more fact-based standpoint, helping to shape his notoriously cautious views on the subject.

#20. Our Final Invention

Author: James Barrat
Subtitle: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.
First published: 2013
Recommended by Musk here.

Barrat explains that artificial intelligence will someday surpass human intelligence — and argues that that day is coming faster than we think.

Our Final Invention is a primer on AI history, varieties and concepts for the layman.

His work is accessible and extensive, but cautionary; Barrat warns that while it may seem outlandish to some, super-intelligence could indeed threaten human existence.

#21. Superintelligence

Author: Nick Bostrom
Subtitle: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.
First published: 2014
Recommended by Musk here.

To find out why the risks of AI are so scary, Musk says it’s worth reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which makes a daring inquiry into what would happen if computational intelligence surpassed human intelligence.

Unless the superintelligence is endowed with qualities that align with human values, it could become, as Musk puts it, “an immortal dictator from which we could never escape.”

Musk agrees with Bostrom that a superintelligence could be more deadly than nukes.

#22. The AI Revolution

Author: Tim Urban
Subtitle: The Road to Superintelligence.
First published: 2015
Recommended by Musk here.

This two-part blog post explains the historical context for how fast the AI revolution is coming, as well as the technological growth in computing power that our generation will likely witness.

Urban illuminates the tiny corners of our world already quietly running on AI (email spam filters, air traffic control and stock trades, for example) and illustrates the potential — both benevolent and terrible — for the godlike power of AI.

Read Part 1 and Part 2

#23. Life 3.0

Author: Max Tegmark
Subtitle: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.
First published: 2017
Recommended by Musk here.

Life 3.0 asserts that in order to weather the technological, economic and societal shift brought on by widespread use of artificial intelligence, we must immediately confront some difficult ethical questions.

By proactively planning and shaping our future, we can avoid the disastrous consequences of mismanaged technology after the fact.

#24. Human Compatible

Author: Stuart Russell
Subtitle: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control.
First published: 2019
Recommended by Musk here.

Russell notes that the Machiavellian method of determining the success of an AI task is currently flawed: we look only at how well the task was completed, disregarding (and allowing the computer to disregard) all human values that may be violated in the process.

Similar to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Russell gives three principles to guide the beneficial development of AI based on human preferences and behaviors.

Other Books

Musk’s reading is not limited to these genres. He reads a little of everything. I guess when your goal is to develop breakthrough electric batteries, create hyperloops to supplant freeways, and plan to colonize Mars, it pays to be a jack-of-all-trades.

#25. The Lord of the Rings

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
First published: 1954
Recommended by Musk here.

Musk noted in an interview with the New Yorker that he has admired the unassuming heroes of the books in this epic high-fantasy series since childhood.

Humble hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin journey to unknown lands, team up with dwarves, elves and kings, and fight monsters to save the world from the evil Lord Sauron and the power of the One Ring.

#26. Waiting for Godot

Author: Samuel Beckett
Subtitle: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.
First published: 1953
Recommended by Musk here.

Musk appreciates the absurd humor of Waiting for Godot, noting that “we so often wait, without knowing why, when or where.”

In this play, two men meet at a scraggly tree to wait for a mysterious Godot, who never arrives. The play is extremely minimalist in props, set and characters, leaving the interpretation very much up to the audience.

#27. Structures

Author: J.E. Gordon
Subtitle: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down.
First published: 1978
Recommended by Musk here.

Structures — defined here as any collection of materials, both natural and manmade, that are built to withstand a force or load — are all around us.

This book on structural design and material engineering covers the history of human-designed structures and serves as a primer on the physical principles of building materials (like stress, strain and stiffness).

Gordon gives many practical examples, such as why so many buildings use beams and why broken-in shoes feel nicer than brand-new ones.

#28. Ignition!

Author: John D. Clark
Subtitle: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants.
First published: 1972
Recommended by Musk here.

For all of Musk’s infatuation with space exploration, this is his only recommended book on rocket science.

Ignition! chronicles the journey of rival research labs to discover a substance that would send rockets past Earth’s gravity and into space.

What could easily be a dry, academic work blossoms in the hands of author John D. Clark into an engrossing story of a few underfunded, resilient, zany chemists making things that go “boom.”

#29. If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…

Author: Stephen Webb
Subtitle: WHERE IS EVERYBODY?
First published: 2002
Recommended by Musk here.

This book addresses Fermi’s Paradox, which posits the following question: if (statistically) there should be many alien life forms in our universe, why have we found no convincing evidence of them?

With 400 billion stars to host planets in the Milky Way alone, it’s a fair question.

Webb explores dozens of explanations for the paradox — such as that extraterrestrials came and left, they are here but can’t be detected, or that they do not actually exist — weighing in on each theory and concluding with his own ideas on why we haven’t seen any aliens on Earth.

#30. Merchants of Doubt

Author: Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Subtitle: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.
First published: 2010
Recommended by Musk here.

Scientists knew that smoking tobacco was dangerous, that acid rain was harmful, and that the climate was changing long before the general public did.

Oreskes and Conway uncover the people and institutions that muddled, changed, and obscured scientific evidence from public view in multiple cases — and what they gained from doing so.

#31. Lying

Author: Sam Harris
First published: 2011
Recommended by Musk here.

The crux of this book is simple: you can make a deep impact by telling the truth when others lie.

Whether the lie is small (telling your wife she doesn’t look fat in that dress) or large (forging tax documents), it usually results in negative consequences for the liar.

Harris examines the psychological and evolutionary precedences for lying, as well as tactical suggestions for telling the painful, scary truth.

#32. The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green
First published: 2012
Recommended by Musk here.

Musk admits to enjoying this romantic young adult novel about Hazel, a teenage girl with thyroid cancer who begrudgingly attends a cancer support group to appease her parents.

There, she meets Augustus, a cancer survivor who has lost his leg. Together they travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author, fall in love, and grapple with loss.

#33. A Woman Makes a Plan

Author: Maye Musk
Subtitle: Advice for a Lifetime of Adventure, Beauty, and Success.
First published: 2019
Recommended by Musk here.

Maye Musk’s credentials include international supermodel, registered dietitian, and mother to three successful children — including her son Elon.

Her success and fame have not come easily; she is the survivor of domestic abuse and raised her three children on a small income.

Her advice is simple, yet profound: if you don’t like your situation, environment, or some aspect of yourself, then make a plan to change it. Persevere and work through it, and don’t let age or agencies stop you.

Elon Musk Reading List: Final Thoughts

Ironically, in this human era that is oversaturated with information, we often forget how much knowledge can be gained by simply reading a book. Whether or not you want to build rockets and combat climate change, reading like a CEO can help you think like one. 

Consistent reading of quality works of fiction and nonfiction alike is well worth the time investment — even if it’s just an escape from the stress of reality. And if a billionaire like Elon Musk has time to read, chances are you do too. 

 
R.J. Weiss
R.J. Weiss is the founder and editor of The Ways To Wealth, a Certified Financial Planner™, husband and father of three. He's spent the last 10+ years writing about personal finance and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg, MSN Money, and other publications.

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