Review of Hackers & Painters

Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
Paul Graham
O'Reilly & Associates

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

June 9, 2005

Paul Graham was one of the founders of dot com success story Viaweb, which was sold to Yahoo! in 1998. Finding himself with a little more free time than he did during his start-up days, Graham has reinvented himself as a pundit, commenting on a wide variety of topics through his web site at His book, Hackers & Painters expands on these writings and his experiences during the heady days of the dot com era.

Graham's book is a collection of fifteen essays covering many diverse topics. We expect Graham to have something to say about software development and entrepreneurship, having aptly demonstrated an aptitude for both of these endeavors. What one might not expect is for him to be able to write so eloquently about education, economics, and politics.

The quality of a book such as this depends upon two factors: the value of the thoughts expressed and the clarity with which they are expressed. Graham demonstrates that he is much more than just a programmer, proving himself eminently capable on both counts. His ideas are always interesting, even when we might disagree with them, and they appear to be expressed effortlessly, belying a careful structure to how he expresses his thoughts.

One thing I really appreciate about Graham's writing style is that he avoids the sophistry that underlies the vast majority of what passes for editorial discourse these days. He does not want to hide the key decision points in his arguments. In fact, he goes out of his way to expose these critical components. Graham isn't interested in demagoguery, his interest is in critical inquiry. He seems happy to make it easy for his readers to attack the assumptions inherent in his arguments because Graham is more interested in an honest appraisal of what he has to say than in convincing anyone of his point of view.

Many of Graham's essays will be familiar to those who have read his web site as those writings formed the basis for much of the contents of Hackers & Painters. Much of the book's contents is new or has been signficiantly rewritten. Because of this the book is worthwhile even to those who have closely followed Graham's writings in other fora.

The bottom line is that I believe that Paul Graham has written some of the most intriguing things I have read over the past few years. He writes eloquently about many topics, not only on software and business. He has a fascinating viewpoint on most of the issues he chooses to tackle, and even when I disagree with his conclusions I am forced to admire the thought process he demonstrates.

I would urge folks interested in provocative contemporary thought on just about any issue to check out Graham's web site. If what he has to say there seems at all intriguing, definitely check out Hackers & Painters. I enjoyed it thoroughly and eagerly await what he has to say next.


Paul Graham is a well known essayest, not only on subjects of his obvious expertise, software and technology start-ups, but on a wide variety of topics. Hackers & Painters is a fascinating extension of the writings he has posted on his web site. I found them to be well-considered and intriguing. From every source available I recommend folks check out what he has to say.

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