The Books on Young Alan Turing’s Reading List: From Lewis Carroll to Modern Chromatics

turing book list

Image via Wikimedia Commons

We now regard Alan Turing, the troubled and ultimately persecuted cryptanalyst (and, intellectually, much more besides)—who cracked the code of the German Enigma machine in World War II—as one of the great minds of history. His life and work have drawn a good deal of serious examination since his early death in 1954, and recently his legacy has even given rise to popular portrayals such as that by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film The Imitation Game. So what, more and more of us have started to wonder, forms a mind like Turing’s in the first place?



A few years ago, mathematics writer Alex Bellos received, from “an old friend who teaches at Sherborne, the school Turing attended between 1928 and 1930,” some “new information about the computer pioneer and codebreaker’s school years” in the form of “the list of books Turing took out from the school library while he was a pupil.” Bellos lists them as follows:

“As you can see, and as you might expect,” writes Bellos, “heavy on the sciences. The AJ Evans, a memoir about the author’s escape from imprisonment in the First World War, is the only non-scientific book.” He also notes that “the physics books he took out all look very serious, but the maths ones are lighthearted: the Lewis Carroll and the Rouse Ball, which for decades was the classic text in recreational maths problems.” Sherborne archivist Rachel Hassall, who provided Bellos with the list, also told him that “the book chosen by Turing for his school prize was a copy of the Rouse Ball. Even teenage geniuses like to have fun.”

If you, too, would like to do a bit of the reading of a genius — or, depending on how quantitatively your own mind works, just have some fun — you can download for free most of these books the young Turing checked out of the school library. Programmer and writer John Graham-Cumming originally found and organized all the links to the texts on his blog; you can follow them there or from the list in this post. And if you know any youngsters in whom you see the potential to achieve history’s next Turing-level accomplishment, send a few e-books their way. Why read Harry Potter, after all, when you can read A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-Clusters & Nebulae, together with information concerning the instruments & the methods employed in the pursuit of celestial photography?

via Alex Bellos

Related Content:

The Enigma Machine: How Alan Turing Helped Break the Unbreakable Nazi Code

Alan Turing, Brilliant Mathematician and Code Breaker, Will Be Finally Pardoned by British Government

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter Alan Turing Wrote in “Distress” Before His Conviction For “Gross Indecency”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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