Musk had a nickname when he was a shrimpy, smart-mouthed kid growing up in South Africa: Muskrat.
The New Yorker reports 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 his vision for his future self.
"The heroes of the books I read always felt a duty to save the world," he told the New Yorker.
Musk says that he had an "existential crisis" when he was between the ages of 12 and 15, burrowing into Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and other moody philosophers to find the meaning of life.
It didn't help.
Then he came upon "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a comic interstellar romp by Douglas Adams. In the book a supercomputer finds that "answer" to a meaningful life is the number 42 — but the question was never figured out.
This was instructive to a young Musk.
"If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part," Musk said in an interview. "So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask."
Musk has said that Ben Franklin is one of his heroes.
In his biography, "you can see how [Franklin] was an entrepreneur," Musk says in an interview with Foundation. "He was an entrepreneur. He started from nothing. He was just a runaway kid."
Something about that is similar to Musk's own story — growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, going to school in Canada, transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, then using a Stanford University Ph.D. to land in Silicon Valley.
Musk's review: "Franklin's pretty awesome," he says.
Buy it here >>
In that same interview with Foundation, Musk says that he learned a lot from another biography by Walter Isaacson — "Einstein."
Like with "Franklin," this books tells the story of a genius who transforms the world with his intelligence and ambition.
As the jacket copy breathlessly proclaims, the book "explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk — a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn't get a teaching job or a doctorate — became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos."
Musk is a committed autodidact, devouring the subjects he needs to know about.
When he decided to start SpaceX, he needed to learn the basics 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.
"Ignition!" is another, hard-to-get-your-hands-on account of early rocket science.
"There is a good book on rocket stuff called 'Ignition!' by John Clark that's a really fun one," Musk said in an interview.
Clark was an American chemist active in the development of rocket fuels back in the 1960s and 1970s, and the book is both an account of the growth of the field and an explainer of how the science works.
Though the book is hard to track down, people love it. Consider this Amazon review:
This book has the right mix of technical details, descriptions of experiments with spectacular results, background info about the why's and how's, and about the politics involved. It is a very engaging and uplifting book because Clark captured a lot of the enthusiasm he had for rockets.
Fortunately for us, this rare text is available online here and here.
Given his leadership roles at SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla, Musk has a bird's eye view of the advance of technology.
It's not all good news.
"We need to be super careful with AI," he tweeted, since it's "potentially more dangerous than nukes."
To find out why, he says it's "worth reading" Nick Bostrom's "Superintelligence," a book that makes the daring inquiry into what would happen if computational intelligence surpassed human intelligence.
Back in the early 2000s when Musk was running the payments startup X.com, he was in direct competition with PayPal, cofounded by Peter Thiel, a man who's now a billionaire investor.
So when Thiel came out with his book of startup philosophy, Musk naturally endorsed it.
"Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and 'Zero to One' shows how," he says.
The book is full of Thiel's combative insights — like that Silicon Valley's obsession with disruption is totally misguided.
In a recent 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 says.
But it's easy to see why Musk would be attracted to Hughes, since he worked in multiple industries and pushed the boundaries of flying, breaking air speed records.