Books of Authority
September 8, 2016 12:37 PM   Subscribe

What are some examples of famously comprehensive, authoritative works in a particular field, on par with Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming or Feynman's Lectures?

Distinguishing features would be that they're written by a recognized expert, offer a comprehensive treatment of the field as of the time of writing, and have withstood to some degree the test of time (in print for a long time or multiple editions).

Other, more negotiable, characteristics might be a perception of general flawlessness (such that finding an error or defect in the text is considered a major achievement) and authoritative status among those working in the field as a reference or standard text. Perhaps sort of book that you would cite via an abbreviation and have everyone know what you mean.

Examples that seem to fit the bill (although open to argument!):
  • Knuth's "The Art of Computer Programming"
  • Feynman's "The Feynman Lectures on Physics"
  • Bertrand Russell's "The Problems of Philosophy"
  • William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England"
To differentiate it from this previously asked question regarding "introductory" books in a particular field (which is more than a few years old now), I'm not necessarily looking for general-interest or introductory books, though that's not necessarily a disqualification; more for the sort of books you might find, well-thumbed, on the shelf of someone who has been working in a particular field for years.

I've also reviewed the previous questions concerning "well-written textbooks" and "famous works of obsession" and while there certainly might be some overlap, I don't think the books I'm looking for are necessarily well-written as a requirement, nor necessarily the product of any particular obsession on the part of the author.
posted by Kadin2048 to Education (32 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Principles of Neural Science by Kandell & Schwartz
The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics by Goodman & Gilman
posted by exogenous at 12:47 PM on September 8, 2016

Also open to argument: Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
posted by archimago at 12:52 PM on September 8, 2016

The "sort of book that you would cite via an abbreviation" requirement screams "K&R" (short for The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie.

It's probably a little dated by now, but "The Dragon Book" referred to the current edition of a book on compiler design and construction by Alfred Aho, Jeffrey Ullman and later Ravi Sethi and Monica Lam (first version in '77, latest edition of that was 2006).

I think both of those fit most of your criteria.
posted by straw at 12:53 PM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Russell is more like an introduction for the educated general reader than it is a comprehensive text, I'd say
posted by thelonius at 1:00 PM on September 8, 2016

Charles Frederic Chapman's Piloting & Seamanship, which sailors just call "Chapman" even though it has been revised by many others since his death in 1976.
posted by nicwolff at 1:15 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pool and Billiards: Byrne's Standard Book of Pool and Billiards, by Robert Byrne. Definitive, complete, and extremely well illustrated. You still have to put in the time to practice the shots, but you will absolutely know which shots to practice and how to properly execute them.

Poker: Doyle Brunson's Super System: A Course in Power Poker (Volume 1), and for the sake of completeness, its more recent and slightly lesser sequel, Doyle Brunson's Super System II: A Course in Power Poker (Volume 2). Brunson's first book was absolutely groundbreaking when it was first published, as it was the first poker book written by a world class poker player, one written primarily because the author was appalled at just how bad the other available poker books at the time were. The book explains how to use aggression to win at poker, and every poker book that's been published after this one owes it a tremendous debt for that. The book includes chapters written by Brunson and also by a dozen other top poker experts, discussing the subtleties of the games they write about. It probably isn't for everyone, and the games themselves have evolved in response to Brunson's widely used approach. Still, you have to know his approach to poker, and how to defend against his approach, as it is now so widely studied that his advice will be used against you time and again.
posted by mosk at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2016

Oh, and on another subject: Strunk and White: The Elements of Style.
posted by mosk at 1:27 PM on September 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Are you talking about books that had that status for a significant time, or that have that status now? Because I don't know a single contemporary lawyer who keeps Blackstone around as a reference.

Smyth's Greek Grammar, first published I think in 1920, is still consulted by classicists, but at this late date of course errors and infelicities and gaps have been identified.
posted by praemunire at 1:40 PM on September 8, 2016

You're massively overestimating Knuth's influence. I worked as a software engineer for 25 years and I never heard of anyone referencing Knuth or looking in the books for ideas. (And the only reason I had even heard of him was that volume 1 was the text for one of my college classes.)

The problem is that the field changes too fast for the kind of thing he was doing. By the time each volume was completed, it was already obsolete. (And a lot of what made it obsolete was proprietary, making it impossible for anyone to do any better.)

On the other hand, K&R was used constantly, and every engineer I worked with had a well-thumbed copy.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:42 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Medicine: Gray's Anatomy, and the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (or "the cheese and onion" as it is also known for no reason whatsoever). Nobody really reads Gray's Anatomy because it is massive, but it is the authoritative text. The Cheese and Onion is literally the junior doctors' bible. If it isn't in there, you don't need to know it until at least registrar level. It was also designed to fit in the pocket of your white coat. There are other books in the series, but they aren't as good.

The BNF and Renal Drug Handbook are reference guides so I don't know if they are quite what you are looking for, but you'll find a BNF on every ward in the country, and a Renal Drug Handbook on every renal ward, and we use them all the time.
posted by tinkletown at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2016

not sure this is still the case, but landau & lifshitz used to be something like what you want for physics.

(i don't think knuth not being used by practicing software engineers has much to do with whether it's a comprehensive review or not - most software engineers know diddly squat)
posted by andrewcooke at 2:16 PM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

For making sense of data, Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.
posted by JohnFromGR at 2:17 PM on September 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Also open to argument: Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in an English department citing Bloom these days, but fashions in Lit departments tend to change a lot, so I don't know that any book can occupy that position for very long. When I was in grad school from 2005-2011, Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism was probably occupying that position - who knows if it still is.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:21 PM on September 8, 2016

The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams. It's not without flaws, but it has in a very short time since its publication become THE essential comprehensive textbook about animation. No animation student or professional will be without a copy.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:40 PM on September 8, 2016

Comics and Sequential Art" by Will Eisner.

Also "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:15 PM on September 8, 2016

Machinery's Handbook, for engineers and mechanical technical people.
Possibly also Geo-Metrics for geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:38 PM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

The most comprehensive math book I ever had was
Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, Vol I & II by William Feller.
Of course, it's looking at just one part of applied mathematics.

Chapman, rightly mentioned by nicwolf, is dated in some ways. I'd go with The Annapolis Book of Seamanship by John Rosmainiere.

Skene's Elements of Yacht design was the the book to have and trust for years.

Hoyle was the name in game rules. "According to Hoyle" was the phrase. "Hoyle" is now just a brand name, so I can't recommend a specific title.

Likewise with Webster (dictionary) and Roget (Thesaurus). And, I suppose, Robert's (Rules of Order).
posted by SemiSalt at 3:50 PM on September 8, 2016

Maybe not quite what you are looking for (and in both cases my knowledge may no longer be considered current), but...

For chemistry the CRC comes to mind as the definitive reference book; I remember it was something of a milestone purchasing one for myself.

In a completely different vein, when I played trumpet, the Arban's was if not THE method book for learning, at least recognized as a comprehensive way to learn just about any technique there is to learn.
posted by solotoro at 3:58 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Ashley Book of Knots, a legend you can use!
posted by fritillary at 5:04 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Quantum Computation and Quantum Information is still the authoritative book on quantum computing and will probably continue to be for a while.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:46 PM on September 8, 2016

While perhaps not widely known, The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks is the classical work on software project management.
posted by Altomentis at 7:01 PM on September 8, 2016

And for a philosophical, integrated view of human history, there is always, the 11-volume The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. Long ahead of his time, Will Durant was trying to increase understanding and tolerance among human beings, and criticized the insularity of western euro-centric society.
posted by Altomentis at 7:14 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are a bunch of standard reference works in law. As a litigator in California, I probably look at Civil Procedure Before Trial (The Rutter Group California Practice Guide) several times per week, and earlier in my career I used Witkin Treatises, such as Summary of California Law, at least that often.
posted by PlannedSpontaneity at 10:18 PM on September 8, 2016

tinkletown: the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (or "the cheese and onion" as it is also known for no reason whatsoever).

It's called the 'cheese and onion' because of the green and yellow cover: packets of cheese and onion flavoured crisps are popularly associated with the color green. The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Specialities looks pretty similar but in blue: it is therefore known as the 'salt and vinegar'.

Note that Walkers has the opposite coloring the many other brands, with their salt and vinegar crisps in green bags and cheese and onion in blue: many people claim to remember them switching color in the 90s, but this may be a collective false memory.

posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:32 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The PDR.
Physicians desk reference for medication information.
Largely supplanted by online references now but still "the book everyone knows."
posted by SyraCarol at 4:08 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Torah, the Bible and the Koran.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:10 AM on September 9, 2016

When I was more actively involved with alternative education, the three books that kept coming up over and over were Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto, The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn, and How Children Fail by John Holt.
posted by divabat at 5:53 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Great responses, everyone so far!
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:46 AM on September 9, 2016

Hmmm. I love The Feynman Lectures on Physics, but I think of it as a series of really neat and often non-standard ways to introduce undergraduate physics concepts. I've never seen anyone use it as a reference for anything unrelated to teaching, and as a summary of the field as a whole it's incredibly eccentric. Opening it to look something up in a research context, rather than to remind oneself of a particularly neat example problem, would seem surprising.

Though they're very clearly textbooks, both Sharer's The Ancient Maya and Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics seem to fit the bill among Mayanists and Physicists. I'm tempted to include Numerical Recipes on the list. . . but my sense is that there seems to be a lot more debate about its quality than the other two. (And, frankly, I tend to agree with the skeptics.)

Landau and Lifshitz' Course of Theoretical Physics is the best historical example I can think of. But, it's fallen out of favor in recent generations, at least in the US.
posted by eotvos at 8:59 AM on September 9, 2016

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual for chess endgames.

Seconding Landau and Lifshitz for physics.
posted by dfan at 11:15 AM on September 9, 2016

Microeconomic Theory was published in 1995 by Mas Colell, Whinston, and Green and has been studied by virtually ever person who has graduated with a PhD in economics in the past 20 years.

Despite it's age it is still used as the core first-year textbook for in a large fraction of all economics programs. It's so common that almost everyone refers to it by the initials of the authors MWG.
posted by vegetableagony at 7:18 PM on September 9, 2016

Computers and Intractability: A Guide to the Theory of NP-Completeness, better known as "Garey and Johnson" after the authors, is still a very good resource for theoretical computer scientists. It's quite old (1979) and its subject matter is nowadays more at the undergraduate level but its real use is not the main text but the huge list of hundreds of different NP-complete problems in the back. I'm not sure if there's an online equivalent in terms of thoroughness even today; the various lists I've seen around on the internet I've found somewhat lacking and always turn back to Garey & Johnson.
posted by mhum at 7:46 PM on September 12, 2016

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