Charlie Munger was asked a question about him at the 2014 Daily Journal Meeting and he replied:
I think Elon Musk is a genius, and I don't use that word lightly. I think he's also one of the boldest men that ever came down the pike.
Whenever anyone asks him how he learned to build rockets, he says, ‘I read books.' Not only does he read them, according to his interview with Esquire, he devours them. After meeting Musk, people tend to walk away with the same reaction: ‘He's the smartest guy I've ever met.'
Not to be outdone by his friend and co-founder, Peter Thiel, who offered some reading recommendations, Musk has a few of his own that influenced him.
In an interview with Design and Architecture, Musk said “In terms of sci-fi books, I think Isaac Asimov is really great. I like the Foundation series, probably one of the all-time best. Robert Heinlein, obviously. I like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and I like Stranger in a Strange Land, although it kind of goes off the rails at the end.” He continues “There’s a good book on structural design called Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design.”
Here are some of his other reading recommendations.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
He told the New Yorker that as an “undersized and picked upon smart-aleck,” he turned to reading fantasy and science fiction. “The heroes of the books I read, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the ‘Foundation’ series, always felt a duty to save the world.”
In that same interview he also recommends Einstein: His Life and Universe, also by Isaacson.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel
I've already said this is required reading for Farnam Streeters. Of this book Musk says: “Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and (this book) shows how.”
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
“Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” he tweeted. Of course I bought this.
Alison van Diggelen: I understand Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that wonderful book by Douglas Adams, that was a key book for you. What was it about that book that fired your imagination?
Elon Musk: I guess when I was around 12 or 15 … I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”
Finally we get to the rocket science part.
Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants by John D. Clark
“There is a good book on rocket stuff called ‘Ignition!' by John Clark that's a really fun one,” Musk said in an interview. Becoming a rocket scientist isn't cheap. This book recommendation from Musk will set you back about 3k for a used copy (it's also free on the web)