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The 13 books Elon Musk says shaped his worldview and led him to business and personal success


Elon Musk

  • No matter how busy executives seem to be, they always seem to have time to prioritize reading.
  • Elon Musk follows this pattern. Instead of relying on self-help books or just nonfiction pieces, he reads across different genres. 
  • We explored Musk's previous interviews and social media to compile a list of 13 books that he's recommended.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Elon Musk has made headlines recently. 

Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, which recently launched two people into orbit for the first time, the company's most important mission since its founding in 2002.

He is also the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla, which confirmed in an SEC filing that the company's average value on the stock market for the past six months is now above $100 billion for the first time. This is an important step for Musk because it unlocks the first part of his massive 2018 compensation package with the company — and the new SEC filing gives the board's seal of approval for that potential payout.

Although Musk has a lot going on right now, he still finds time to read. Musk has said that reading a variety of books — from epic works of fantasy like the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy to complex how-to books on building rockets — is crucial to his success.

We looked through Musk's past interviews and social-media history to come up with a list of 13 books the billionaire entrepreneur thinks everyone should read.

Take a look below.

Sherin Shibu contributed to an earlier version of this piece. 

SEE ALSO: Ray Dalio says anyone who wants to understand today's world should read a 32-year-old book about empires

"The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Musk had a nickname when he was a shrimpy, smart-mouthed kid growing up in South Africa: Muskrat.

The New Yorker reported in 2009 that "in his loneliness, he read a lot of fantasy and science fiction."

Those books — notably "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien — shaped Musk's vision of his future self.

"The heroes of the books I read ... always felt a duty to save the world,"he told The New Yorker.

For those who've already read the books and seen the movies but are still hurting for more Middle Earth, Amazon is working on a "Lord of the Rings" TV series.

Buy it here »

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

In this comedic sci-fi book, a supercomputer finds the "answer" to a meaningful life: the number 42.

To Musk, who read this as a young teenager in South Africa, the book was instrumental to his thinking. He was so enamored with it, in fact, that when he launched his Tesla Roadster into space in February, he put the words "Don't Panic!"— which graced the cover of some early editions of the book — on the car's center screen.

When asked in a 2015 interview about his favorite spaceship from science fiction, he said, "I'd have to say that would be the one in 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' that's powered by the improbability drive."

Buy it here »

"Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" by Walter Isaacson

Musk has repeatedly described Benjamin Franklin, one of the US's founding fathers and an accomplished inventor, as one of his heroes.

Franklin, in his famous kite experiment, was one of the first people to prove that lightning is electricity, which led to the invention of the lightning rod. He's also credited with inventing bifocals: glasses with two distinct optical lenses.

In this biography of Franklin, "you can see how he was an entrepreneur,"Musk said in an interview with Foundation, a platform for nonprofits working on climate-change issues. "He was an entrepreneur. He started from nothing. He was just a runaway kid."

Musk added: "Franklin's pretty awesome."

Buy it here »

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

When Musk started SpaceX, he was coming from a coding background. But he took it upon himself to learn the fundamentals of rocket science.

One of the books that helped him was "Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down," a popular take on structural engineering by J.E. Gordon, a British material scientist.

"It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design," Musk said in an interview with KCRW, a Southern California radio station.

Because of his interest in rocket mechanics, Musk got intimately involved with the planning and design of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. He has served as the chief designer at SpaceX as well as CEO.

"The reason I ended up being the chief engineer or chief designer was not because I wanted to — it's because I couldn't hire anyone; nobody good would join," Musk said during a talk in 2017 about his plans to colonize Mars.

Buy it here »

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

In Musk's quest to learn and master complicated subjects, "Ignition" was crucial in helping him get a handle on rockets, he's said.

John D. Clark was an American chemist who was active in the development of rocket fuels in the 1960s and '70s. The book is an account of the growth of the field and an explanation of how the science works.

Musk took the book's lesson to heart when he was working on SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket system. SpaceX used cryogenically cooled RP-1, a type of kerosene used in jets, and liquid oxygen to combust the fuel used to launch the rocket.

While the book is hard to find, it's available online here.

"Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies" by Nick Bostrom

Musk has repeatedly warned against the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence.

"We need to be super careful with AI,"he tweeted in 2014, adding that it's "potentially more dangerous than nukes."

In a documentary about artificial intelligence called "Do You Trust This Computer?" Musk said AI could be used to create an "immortal dictator from which we could never escape."

He added: "We are rapidly heading towards digital superintelligence that far exceeds any human. I think it's very obvious."

To find out why these risks are so scary, Musk said it was worth reading Nick Bostrom's "Superintelligence," which makes the daring inquiry into what would happen if computational intelligence surpassed human intelligence.

Buy it here »

"Our Final Invention" by James Barrat

"Our Final Invention" gives still more warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Musk called the book a "worthy read" in a 2014 tweet.

Barrat takes a close look at the potential future of AI, weighing its advantages and disadvantages.

Barrat says on his website that the book is at least partly "about AI's catastrophic downside, one you'll never hear about from Google, Apple, IBM, and DARPA."

Musk agrees.

"AI doesn't have to be evil to destroy humanity — if AI has a goal, and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it, no hard feelings," he said in a documentary about artificial intelligence.

Buy it here »

The "Foundation" series by Isaac Asimov

In addition to the "Lord of the Rings" books, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series made up part of Musk's early interest in science fiction and fantasy.

The books center on the fall of the fictional Galactic Empire, which consists of millions of planets settled by humans across the Milky Way.

The stories may have had a huge influence on Musk's career trajectory. Here's what he said about the series in a 2013 interview with The Guardian:

The lessons of history would suggest that civilizations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far — the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China.

We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now, and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline.

Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, 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.

Buy it here »

"The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein

This award-winning science-fiction novel, published in 1966, paints a picture of a dystopia not too far in the future. It's exactly the kind of vivid fantasy world that would satisfy an active imagination like Musk's.

In the book, several people have been exiled from Earth to the moon, where they have created a libertarian society.

In the year 2076, a group of rebels — including a supercomputer named Mike and a one-armed computer technician — leads the lunar colony's revolution against its Earth-bound rulers.

In an interview at an MIT symposium in 2014, Musk said the book was Heinlein's best work.

Buy it here »

"Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence" by Max Tegmark

If you're sensing a theme among the books on this list, it's that Musk is really into exploring the future of artificial intelligence.

In "Life 3.0," the MIT professor Max Tegmark writes about how to keep artificial intelligence beneficial for human life and ensure that technological progress remains aligned with humanity's goals for the future.

It's one of the few books Musk recommends that deal with the possibility of AI as a force for good rather than evil.

Buy it here »

"Merchants of Doubt" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

"Merchants of Doubt,"now also a documentary, was written by two historians of science.

They make the case that scientists with political and industry connections have obscured the facts surrounding a series of public-health issues, including tobacco, pesticide use, and holes in the ozone layer.

Musk recommended the book at a conference in 2013 and later pointed to the book's key takeaway in a tweet, saying that the same forces that denied that smoking caused cancer were denying the dangers of climate change.

Buy it here »

"Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson

Musk is a big fan of Walter Isaacson's biographies.

In a 2012 interview, Musk recommended Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein, a man who left a profound mark on science and human history.

The book is based on Einstein's personal letters and explores how he went from a young frustrated patent officer to a Nobel Prize winner.

It's a story that likely inspired Musk.

Buy it here »

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

Elon Musk has been a long time fan of Howard Hughes, a billionaire business owner, and American aviator. 

In an interview with CNN, Musk said that he had just finished Barlett and Steele's "Howard Hughes," a biography of the eccentric filmmaker and aviation tycoon, who famously got a little nutty at the end of his life.

"Definitely want to make sure I don't grow my fingernails too long and start peeing in jars," Musk said.

But it's easy to see why Musk would be attracted to Hughes, who worked in multiple industries and pushed the boundaries of flying, breaking air-speed records.

Buy it here »

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