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I've tried to read this series of books many times. I recently bought Vol. 4 to add to my shelf. I do actually hope to one day read and understand it. I only seem to be able to get the most surface understanding of any of it though.

When I was in college I did one of those design your own courses. I decided for myself to get through the initial part of Vol. 1, hoping I'd come out with the ability to read the rest. Was the one class I ended up pestering professors about on a daily basis and I still didn't get it. The proofs blew me away for the most part and though I could look at an answer in the back and usually, through many hours of struggling and help, figure out how it was derived...I could never actually do it.

I know of the book Concrete Mathematics, and I've read parts of it. Still though, I think I need more foundation to put these topics in perspective and actually DO some of the exercises myself.

What other things can I do in order to better myself enough to begin facing this mountain?

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Serious Flashback: Knuth offered various levels of bounties for errors in the original set of books and an old friend and his wife made all of their Fun Money by finding errors in the original TAoCP. They were both at Stanford working on Masters in CS back in the 70's and they got DEK to pay for a lot of pizzas and movies. –  Peter Rowell Jul 5 '11 at 0:25
    
I sent an email questioning something Dr. Knuth said about random, and much to my surprise his assistant emailed me wanting my mailing address. Several weeks later there was a letter in the mailbox from Stanford. When I opened it it was a copy of my email with notations from Dr. Knuth. He is really quite funny. –  dbasnett Jul 5 '11 at 0:33
    
@Crazy - It is helpful to re-visit the TAOCP over time. My first encounter was in the early 80's and even today I find it helpful. –  dbasnett Jul 5 '11 at 0:36
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2 Answers

It's not a work that you read through so much as a last-resort repository of ultimate answers. When you really need to know something about a certain data structure or algorithm, turn to the relevant section, block off a couple hours and read that section only, but in depth: understand the equations, do the exercises, step through the example programs. You will gain an understanding of that area that is well worth the effort.

The beauty of the series is that it's possible and even fun to do this with pretty much any single section. However, consuming the entire text this way is probably beyond the powers of any individual who isn't a tenured professor with no other work to do. You absolutely shouldn't feel bad for not achieving that.

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+1. Don't forget that he's been writing that thing for 49(!!!) years now, and only just passed the half-way mark. (Volume 5 of 7 is estimated to be released in 2020, volumes 6 and 7 don't even have an estimate yet.) You shouldn't feel bad if it takes you as long to read as it did to write. –  Jörg W Mittag Jul 5 '11 at 11:07
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  • Try reading up other books on Algorithms that are not so heavy;

  • Use as many algorithms as you can at work, and, max them out, when you max out, hit the books looking for a solution;

  • Try reading up on recent developments on Algorithms and see how you could use them at work;

  • When you have done enough of these, see what TAOCP can add to your knowledge. My guess is, by now you will be fully prepared to read them and assimilate a bit more than you did the last time.

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