'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams
Musk says 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 the "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."
Something about that is similar to Musk's story — growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, going to school in Canada, transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, then using an invitation to Stanford University's Ph.D. program to land in Silicon Valley.
Musk's review: "Franklin's pretty awesome," he says.
As 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."
'Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants' by John D. Clark
"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.
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.
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.
'Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness' by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
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 says.
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.
‘Merchants of Doubt’ by Naomi Orestes and Erik M. Conway
Now a documentary, "Merchants of Doubt" is written by two historians of science who make the case that scientists with political and industry connections have obscured the facts surrounding a series of public health issues.
It's possible that Musk's interest in space exploration technology stems from his days spent reading science fiction.
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Musk said he was influenced by Asimov's "Foundation" series, which centers on the fall of the Galactic Empire.
Here's what he said the book taught him:
The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations 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 4.5bn 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.
This award-winning science fiction novel, originally published in 1966, paints the 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, a group of 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 earthbound rulers.