Earlier this year, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk made history upon successfully completing the first commercial rocket launch from the NASA launch pad which also sent astronauts to the moon. Although Musk studied physics and economics in college, he actually first learned about rockets by reading books.
In fact, Musk’s connection with books goes beyond his latest successes.
“I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents,” Musk said in an interview with reporter Neil Strauss for Rolling Stone’s latest cover story.
Up until Musk was 8, he lived with both of his parents Maye and Errol Musk in South Africa, Strauss reported. But he did not see them much and mostly lived under the watch of a housekeeper, who Musk said was mainly there to make sure he didn’t break anything.
“She wasn’t, like, watching me. I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets and doing things that could have gotten me killed,” Musk told the magazine. “I’m shocked that I have all my fingers.”
Throughout his childhood, books have played a crucial role in fueling Musk’s ambitions. It’s said that he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at age nine and would pore through science fiction novels for more than 10 hours a day.
When Musk’s parents separated, Musk said he felt sad for his father and decided to move with him. In an interview in 2015, Errol told Forbes about how young Elon would have the most fun when reading books.
“Elon has always been an introvert thinker,” Errol said. “So where a lot of people would go to a great party and have a great time and drink and talk about all sorts of things like rugby or sport, you would find Elon had found the person’s library and was going through their books.”
From his adolescence through today, here are eight books that shaped the revolutionary entrepreneur:
1. “Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down” by J.E. Gordon
When Musk decided he wanted to learn rocket science, he studied textbooks on astrophysics and engineering. While reading advanced texts on physics may not be for everyone, this book offers a lighter take on the science behind SpaceX.
“It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design,” Musk said in an interview with KCRW.
2. “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” by Walter Isaacson
Ben Franklin, author, inventor, scientist and diplomat, is one of Musk’s heroes.
“You can see how [Franklin] was an entrepreneur,” Musk said in an interview with Foundation’s Kevin Rose. “He was an entrepreneur. He started from nothing. He was just a runaway kid.”
3. “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson
Musk told Rose he was influenced by the biography of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, and it’s clear why.
Some of Einstein’s most famous quotes, like “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” and “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new,” speak directly to Musk’s vision for his companies.
4. “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” by Nick Bostrom
Though Musk is a futurist and deeply interested in artificial intelligence, he has shared his worries about potential dangers and ethical concerns associated with the technology.
Bostrom’s book, which deals with the potential challenges presented should computational intelligence surpass human intelligence, is “worth reading” Musk tweeted in 2014.
5. “Merchants of Doubt” by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes
Musk recommends this argument by two historians who believe that scientists with political and corporate connections have purposefully muddied the facts around many public health issues, such as the negative effects of smoking. He posted his recommendation on Twitter in 2013.
6. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding
This classic novel on survival, competition and greed left its mark on the tech entrepreneur.
“The heroes of the books I read always felt a duty to save the world,” he told the New Yorker.
7. “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” by Peter Thiel
The book, based on notes from a popular class Thiel taught at Stanford University in 2012, focuses on the need for unique thinking among would-be startup founders. Musk said that his Paypal co-founder’s book offers an interesting exploration of the process of building super successful companies.
8. The “Foundation” trilogy by Isaac Asimov
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Musk said Asimov’s books taught him that “civilizations move in cycles,” a lesson that encouraged the entrepreneur to pursue his radical ambitions.
“Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth,” he said, “it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”
Musk told Rolling Stone he found Asimov’s work influential because of its parallel to historian Edward Gibbon’s 18th-century famous series “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” as applied “to a sort of modern galactic empire.”
“The lesson I drew from that is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one,” Musk said.