What We're Reading

The Head First team pulled together this list of books we find helpful, inspiring, or just downright cool. Have a book you think should be on this list? Let us know!

A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster: This is one of those seminal books that nobody's ever heard of. The book covers not so much the mechanics of game design as the mechanics of fun. What do we enjoy? What causes us to laugh? What sorts of things interest our brain? It's an incredibly easy read, first of all, and resembles a flip book, with few words and many pictures, as much as anything else. But, happily, it's engaging (how often have you read a book on fun or even flow that is neither fun nor flowing?). I think cranked through this the first time in around an hour.

What was probably the most notable to me was the bit about how the brain fills in missing pieces—show me an image that's the same enough times, and then show me an image that's slightly different. We all think the brain finds the difference, but the brain actually blurs the difference—it doesn't like the change. We have to force ourselves to identify what's different (it's why those "Which one of these things is not the same?" games can be really tough if done well).

Highly recommended, as much because it's an easy read as for its content. —Brett

Unfortunately, this book is currently out of print by its publisher, but you can find it through resellers.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker: A fascinating look at the field of linguistics, from the science behind phonetics, to how we parse sentences when we read, to the debate on what role language plays in modulating our thoughts. The Language Instinct is remarkable for a pop science book in both its scope and depth, and it keeps things fresh and fun with examples and linguistic brain teasers that make even the driest discussions of syntactic theory come alive. —Sanders

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Something of a classic in cognitive psychology/consciousness studies, itís neither a self help book (7 Habits, How to Win Friends and Influence People) nor a dry academic psychology study using extensive statistical data to support its central thesis. Using a wide range of case studies, Flow shows how the experience of being completely immersed and engaged in challenging activity can be common to anyone who pursues their passion. While not a manual for how to achieve this ideal state (at least not consistently), it demonstrates how Flow can be both the product of engaging in intensely demanding activity, and at the same time be the most rewarding psychological state to attain. —Keith

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King: Everyoneís heard of Stephen King, he probably one of the biggest rock-star authors of all time. And heís a Red Sox fan, so that makes me happy. But this book is one of those books that I recommend to lots of aspiring authors. It not only spells out the nuts-and-bolts of making writing a full time job, from dealing with rejection, polishing proposals, structuring your day, dealing with writers block, and the endless cycles of revising—On Writing also does an excellent job of seamlessly weaving the narrative of Kingís own journey to the author that he is today throughout the lessons. Itís interesting, compelling, and most-of-all practical—all the things the Head First also aspires to be. —Catherine

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: Following the success of Angela's Ashes, this memoir describes McCourt's experiences as a teacher for 30 years in the New York City school system. He explores how his cultural heritage and childhood experiences of poverty in Ireland shaped his teaching pedagogy in unique ways. While he sometimes ran into problems with the school board for his unorthodox methods, and occasionally clashed with his students' worldviews, his approach to teaching ultimately provided a richness of perspective that made him a beloved mentor and friend. —Caitrin


Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee: This is one of the best books on writing that I've ever read. It's clear, straightforward, well-written, interesting, and even has pictures. It's geared towards writers of screen plays for the movies, but the writing advice is useful for all genres, and especially for Head First books. We often say writing for Head First books is like writing a screen play: each chapter has a set of characters who participate, and each page is a stage upon which the story unfolds with a set and the characters who appear at that point in the story. I highly recommend this book for everyone interested in writing, and especially for aspiring (or current) Head First writers.

Writer's Journey

The Writer's Journey, Second Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler: Another terrific book on writing; this is all about how Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" story themes can be used to craft a compelling story. Excellent for Head First writers, as our books are character and story driven, and have many of these elements. For example, our stories have a "hero"; we use "sidekicks" to help the reader in the sticky parts; we have the beginning, middle and end of a journey that hopefully culminates in the reader (the hero) reaching a new level of understanding (conquering the dragon!).

Whole New Mind

A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age by Daniel Pink: This book discusses the power shift to the creative class – people with strong right brain qualities. He identifies six skill sets that will be vital in the new, creative economy, what he calls the Conceptual Age: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. He gives concrete ideas for exercises you can do to emphasize your creative skill sets. The fundamental idea of the book is this: if what you're doing now can be automated either by computer or by people, you will be out of business soon. Head First is all about creativity, so check out this book and get to work on those creative skills.

Emotional Design

Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman. Another terrific book from Donald Norman; in this one, he finally admits that emotion plays a big part in how well things work. The theme of the book is that "beautiful" things just work better. Now, one could easily argue that Head First is not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination; but it certainly gets emotions flowing, and that's key to learning, using, remembering. Read this book to understand the role emotion plays in everything.

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January 2009