In a 2013 interview with Fresh Dialogues, business magnate and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reflected on the pivotal moment he picked up Douglas Adam’s famed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a teen:

“I guess when I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative.

So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”

Growing up with little parental oversight, Musk has mused, “I was raised by books…I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets and doing things that could have gotten me killed.” He was particularly fond of sci-fi series with classic hero arcs: “The heroes of the books I read, The Lord of the Rings and the Foundation series, always felt a duty to save the world.”

From his childhood in South Africa through the building of his business empire today, read on for a list of the rocket science texts, innovator biographies, and dystopian tales on the dangers of AI that have influenced and inspired Elon Musk, collected from interviews and his personal Twitter.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

“It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?” -EM

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks

“Reading The Culture series by Banks. Compelling picture of a grand, semi-utopian galactic future. Hopefully not too optimistic about AI.” -EM

Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness by Donald L. Barlett & James B. Steele

“May be a cautionary tale, he is sort of an interesting fella.” -EM

Our Final Invention by James Barrat

“While on the subject of AI risk, Our Final Invention by James Barrat is also worth reading.” -EM

Fundamentals of Astrodynamics by Roger R. Bate, Donald D. Mueller & Jerry E. White

Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure by William Bolitho

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

“Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” -EM

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson

Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John D. Clark

“There is a good book on rocket stuff called Ignition! by John Clark, that’s a really fun one.” -EM

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

My Life & Work by Henry Ford

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

“Worth reading The Machine Stops, an old story by E.M. Forster.” -EM

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (also rec’d by Stephen King)

Deep Learning by Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, and Aaron Courville

Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J.E. Gordon

“There’s a good book on structural design called Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design.” -EM

Lying by Sam Harris

“Read Lying, the new book by my friend Sam Harris. Excellent cover art and lots of good reasons not to lie!” -EM

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

“I like Franklin’s biography by Isaacson, it’s really good. He was an entrepreneur, he started of nothing, just like a runaway kid. It was interesting to see how he is creating his business, then go to science and politics. I could say he is one of the people I most admire. Franklin is pretty awesome. He did what needed to be done at the time it needed to be done.” -EM

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

International Reference Guide to Space Launch Systems by S. Isakowitz, J. Hopkins & J. Hopkins Jr

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932–1940 by William Manchester

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Elements of Propulsion: Gas Turbines and Rockets by J. Mattingly & H. von Ohain

Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion by Gordon C. Oates, J.S. Przemieniecki

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Orestes & Erik M. Conway

“Worth reading Merchants of Doubt. Same who tried to deny smoking deaths r denying climate change.” -EM

Acts of Love by Talulah Riley

The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles

“My kids love The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles. Now on a rare second read!” -EM

Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez

Rocket Propulsion Elements by George P. Sutton & Oscar Biblarz

“Worth reading Life 3.0 by Tegmark. AI will be the best or worst thing ever for humanity, so let’s get it right.” -EM

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel

“Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and Zero to One shows how.” -EM

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (also rec’d by Jane GoodallTrevor Noah)

If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY? by Stephen Webb

(via Business InsiderGalleyCat, MediumQuoraTwitter)

Leave a Reply