Interpreting the Animal Choices on the World's Most Popular Programming Books

by Amanda Pickering

If you are a software engineer, or work in an office with software engineers, or have ever been near more than one software engineer, you’ve seen the O’Reilly programming books with the animals. A bit of digging on the company website reveals that each book’s cover animal is selected not by the author but by O’Reilly’s creative director, Edie Freedman, who goes on to state: “I never reveal the reasons behind my choices, but I can assure all interested parties that there is always a reason.” So in the end, it’s up to you to figure out how a Mexican agouti, tarsier, or axolotl will guide you on your programming journey. For now, I did my best to decipher a few myself.

Learning Python
Cover Animal: Wood Rat
Meaning: Python, the programming language, was named in reference to Monty Python, not the snake. But this isn’t a snake. Not even a baby snake, still learning how to snake. It’s an animal that a python would probably eat, which is a huge bummer.
DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE: OK so maybe the wood rat has to learn about pythons to avoid death? Still sad.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS: No, but you should probably learn python, it’s fun!

Programming Python
Cover Animal: Actual Python
Meaning: While you’re learning Python you’re just a rat about to be eaten by what you’re trying to learn, but once you know what you’re doing you go on to eating those who are still learning.
DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE: A lot, actually, though it’s kind of evil.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS: This is the only O’Reilly book that chooses such an obvious cover, so they’re probably trying to trick you. Pass.

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Python for Data Analysis
Cover Animal: Golden-Tailed Tree Shrew
Meaning: The golden-tailed tree shrew is known for how much alcohol it consumes by drinking fermented palm nectar without ever getting drunk, since its body is designed to process ethanol super efficiently. Maybe you can analyze as much data as the golden-tailed tree shrew can drink alcohol, but you will possibly never get anything out of it?
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS: Yes. It’s cute. Would learn again.

Learning PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, CSS & HTML5
Cover Animal: Sugar Gliders
Meaning: Look at those huge, adorable eyes. Don’t you want to learn all the web things? Oh but wait, according to the book’s colophon about the cover choice, “One male will assert his dominance by marking the group’s territory with his saliva and then by marking all group members with a distinctive scent produced from his forehead and chest glands.” Men being obnoxious and overbearing? Highly relevant, A+ choice. Sugar gliders, who knew.

Clojure Cookbook
Cover Animal: Aardwolf
Meaning: A fucking AARDWOLF this is AWESOME I’m going to go learn Clojure right now since without it I wouldn’t know that Aardwolves are real.
DOES THIS MAKE SENSE: I have no idea.

Mastering Regular Expressions
Cover Animal: Some owls
Meaning: Owls. Known in folklore for being wise, but also silent killing machines of small, cute woodland animals. Kind of like computer programmers?
DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE: Maybe? A bit ruthless but so is the tech world.

Becoming Functional
Cover Animal: Sheldrake Duck
Meaning: Ducks are pretty functional — their feet are webbed for swimming, but they can also waddle around on land, and they can fly! So functional. Definitely want to become this duck.
DOES THIS MAKE SENSE: A lot, actually.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS: Yes, unless you don’t like being functional, but maybe you’re into that and that’s cool, the duck isn’t judging you nearly as hard as Regular Expressions Owls.

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Understanding Computation
Cover Animal: ???
Meaning: At first I thought this was a rock, which isn’t an animal, what is going on O’Reilly? Or was it maybe coral, which is technically alive. The wavy bits could be some sort of seaweed, which is also alive, but none of these books have plants on the cover. The ocean is huge, dark, scary, and full of all kinds of mysterious animals like that fish with the light on its head and sea cucumbers. This animal must be mysterious and complicated, much like computation. But actually it’s just a bear paw clam. (Not to harsh on clams.)
DOES THIS MAKE SENSE: The book is supposed to teach programmers without a formal computer science background more complicated computing stuff, kind of like figuring out what that clam even is, so yeah.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS: Sorry but clams are still really boring, some of these books have Aardwolves on the cover. No.

JavaScript: The Good Parts
Cover Animal: Monarch Butterfly
Meaning: O’Reilly’s definitive guide to all of Javascript is 600+ pages long and has a appropriately giant rhino on the cover. No one is going to actually read it all the way through when they can just read the 100-page “good parts” of the language with a beautiful, graceful Monarch butterfly on the cover.
DOES THIS MAKE SENSE: So butterflies are a lot smaller than rhinos, but who says they are better, hmm? Monarch larvae is also poisonous to birds, and so many of these books have birds on the cover.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS: I don’t trust this butterfly. No.

Learning Java
Cover Animal: Tigers
Meaning: Did you know that in the next ten years, 1.4 million programming jobs will be created in the forest, but only 400,000 tiger cubs will study computer science at tiger school?

Amanda Pickering Learns to Code in Brooklyn.