MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

It's a commonplace to state that while other sciences (like biology) may always need the newest books, we mathematicians also use to use older books. While this is a qualitative remark, I would like to get a quantitative result. So what are "old" books still used?

Coming from (algebraic) topology, the first things which come to my mind are the works by Milnor. Frequently used (also as a topic for seminars) are his Characteristic Classes (1974, but based on lectures from 1957), his Morse Theory (1963) and other books and articles by him from the mid sixties.

An older book, which is sometimes used, is Steenrod's The Topology of Fibre Bundles from 1951, but this feels a bit dated already. Books older than that in topology are usually only read for historic reasons.

As I have only very limited experience in other fields (except, perhaps, in algebraic geometry), my question is:

What are the oldest books regularly used in your field (and which don't feel "outdated")?

share|cite|improve this question
I think this should be Community Wiki. – Alberto García-Raboso Dec 28 '12 at 16:28
Please don't call "Characteristic Classes" old or I will have to call myself old, being born in the same year as the lectures :-/ – Lee Mosher Dec 28 '12 at 18:28
@Lee Mosher: Would you prefer to call yourself "classical"? :) – user29720 Dec 29 '12 at 0:08
Timeless . . . . – Rodrigo A. Pérez Dec 29 '12 at 3:08
E. Spanier "ALgebric TOpology", "Eilenberg Steenrod "ALgebric TOpology", GOdement "Topologie Algébrique et Théorie des Faisceaux ", COurant-Hilbert "Methods of Mathematical Physics"... "the problem of contemporary authors, is to being con-temporary" (Ennio Flaiano) – Buschi Sergio Dec 29 '12 at 10:45

66 Answers 66

I was just looking at HSM Coxeter's Regular Polytopes (1948) pretty recently, and it is still wonderful.

share|cite|improve this answer

In numerical linear algebra, Gantmacher's The theory of matrices is still a widely read and cited text (see MathSciNet citations). The Russian original dates back to 1953 (thanks @Giuseppe), and the first English translation is from 1959.

share|cite|improve this answer
The first Russian edition is dated 1953. – Giuseppe Jan 7 '13 at 11:38

Spivak's five volume "Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry" still gets a lot of use---particularly the first two volumes.

share|cite|improve this answer

Montgomery and Zippin "Topological Transformation Groups" (originally published in 1955) is still the only book to cover the relevant results on topological characterization of Lie groups in full generality (including Lie group actions). I am not sure if this belongs to algebra or topology area-wise, but it is used in my area, geometric group theory.

For pedagogical purposes, I still use "What Is Mathematics?" by Courant and Robbins (originally published in 1941) and "Geometry and Imagination" (1932) by Hilbert and Kohn-Vossen, when a high school student or an undergraduate asks me for suggestions.

My personal definition of an "old book" is the same as Lee Mosher's, so I do not include here Chapters 4-6 of Bourbaki's "Lie groups and Lie algebras" (1968) which I use as a working tool.

share|cite|improve this answer

Mathematical Foundations of Statistical Mechanics by A. I. Khinchin. The original edition in Russian was published in 1943 according to MathSciNet (MR Number=(17677)).

share|cite|improve this answer

Some volumes of Bourbaki, as Topological Vector spaces or Lie groups are still widely quoted.

share|cite|improve this answer

Tate's thesis, Fourier analysis in number fields, and Hecke's zeta-functions, is from 1950 and is certainly still considered a primary on the subject (in addition to being the original resource).

share|cite|improve this answer
Making explicit what the subject is might be helpful for the masses! :-) – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Jan 2 '13 at 20:41
Heh okay. Of course, the subject is generally referred to as "Tate's thesis," which makes it hard to say anymore ;) – David Corwin Jan 2 '13 at 22:07
Let's not forget Iwasawa's ICM report on the same topic, at the same time, which might have inhibited Tate from publication... until Cassels-Frohlich's 1967. So I myself find "Iwasawa-Tate theory" a more accurate descriptor... – paul garrett May 17 '15 at 21:58

Many systematic introductions to the foundations of the edifice of Differential Geometry appeared in the sixties, and they are useful references even today. Some of them are:

  • Lang, Introduction to Differentiable Manifolds, 1962;
  • Helgason, Differential Geometry and Symmetric Spaces, 1962;
  • Kobayashi, Nomizu, Foundations of Differential Geometry, 1st Vol 1963, 2nd Vol 1969;
  • Sternberg, Lectures on Differential Geometry, 1964;
  • Bishop, Crittenden, Geometry of Manifolds, 1964;
share|cite|improve this answer

In metric geometry Busemann's "The Geometry of Geodesics" (1955) is still wonderful reading. This book is now published by Dover.

share|cite|improve this answer

"Differential and integral calculus" (Russian) by G. M. Fichtenholz was first published in 1948. Recently (in 2009) its $9^{th}$ edition was published and this book is still used as the main calculus textbook at some universities.

share|cite|improve this answer

My first thought was Atiyah & Macdonald's 'An Introduction to Commutative Algebra' - which has already been mentioned - and 'anything by J.P. Serre' (that's old enough, of course!). It appears that not quite everything in this latter category has been mentioned; notably, 'Algebres de Lie Semi-simple Complexes', first published in 1966. There is also a later English translation, 'Complex Semisimple Lie Algebras' published in 1987.

While not quite an introduction, I find myself referring back to this text often for its streamlined, beautiful exposition (a hallmark of Serre). It also has the best exposition of root systems I've encountered.

Furthermore, another classic text on semisimple Lie algebras (J. Humphreys - 'Introduction to Lie Algebras & Representation Theory') is a 'fleshing out' of Serre's notes. Actually, Humphreys's textbook was first published in 1972 so might squeeze onto this list too?

share|cite|improve this answer

Emil Artin's Geometric Algebra (Interscience, 1957) is definitely immortal.

share|cite|improve this answer

Rudin's Principles of Mathematical Analysis, and Herstein's Topics in Algebra if not heavily used, are the ideal that many people strive to in teaching introductory analysis and abstract algebra to undergraduates.

share|cite|improve this answer

H.S. Hall and S.R. Knight, Higher Algebra

First edition 1891 (or so), recent edition 2001 (for example). Subtitled a Sequel to Elementary Algebra for Schools, and so betrays the fact it's not really like Lurie's book of the same title.

share|cite|improve this answer
My father used this book when he studied at Brooklyn College in the 1930's. Luckily, he still owned it when I was growing up. I spent many happy hours poring over it when I was 8 or 9. – Victor Miller Sep 19 '15 at 15:43

I would like to add the nine volumes of the "Treatise on Analysis" of Jean Dieudonné (in French, "Éléments d'Analyse") which is quite thorough with beautiful exercises (unfortunately some of them contain errors or wrong hints) and give a broad view of contemporary aspects of Analysis, still useful nowadays especially the ninth & last volume (they were published in the 70s and 80s I think). Written with a flavor of Bourbaki, it gives the right level of generality (not too much, usually using only locally compact metrizable groups) and the numerous exercises really help to master maim results and methods of proof.

share|cite|improve this answer
I've always wondered, though, how much these amazing books were actually used (specially the later volumes) – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Dec 28 '12 at 22:09
i love these books.i think these books are the best place to master analyis. – Koushik Feb 3 '13 at 3:07

R. Engelking (1977). General Topology.

share|cite|improve this answer

Hardy "Divergent series" (1949)

Naimark "Normed rings" (1968)

Maurin "Methods of Hilbert spaces" (1959)

Hille & Phillips "Functional analysis and semigroups" (1957)

share|cite|improve this answer

Barry Simon and Michael Reed's classic volume on Functional Analysis (1981) is my one of my favorites.

Ayoub, "An Introduction to the Analytic Theory of Numbers," (1963) is out of print but one of the best books on the subject.

share|cite|improve this answer

G.N. Watson's "A Treatise on the Theory of Bessel Functions" (1922),

share|cite|improve this answer

I still think the exposition on elliptic functions in Jacobi's Fundamenta Nova (1829) is one of the best I've encountered if you are interested in the functional relationships. A close second for me is Cayley's An elementary treatise on elliptic functions (1895), especially for the number of alternative proofs presented and the numerous relationships detailed. Modern books tend to take the algebraic approach, which is obviously extremely important for understanding the true nature of the relationships here, but for those of us who study the field because of it's incidental use in combinatorics and generating functions, these older books are a wealth.

Also, I have a personal love of Gauss' Disquisitiones Arithmeticae (1798) because it introduced me to number theory at a young age in a way that was very natural and elegant. Again, I appreciated it's approach to forms and related because it was all easily understandable with middle school algebra.

And finally more modern, for me Goldblatt's Topoi: The categorial analysis of logic (1979) is the best introduction to categories one could have, far better in my opinion than even Mac Lane's. That it is also subversive propaganda for constructivism is also a huge bonus.

share|cite|improve this answer
A book edited in 79 is not old! – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Jan 10 '13 at 1:52

Keisler's "Calculus: An Approach Using Infinitesimals" is a very cool freshman calc book using NSA. It dates back to 1976, and is available for free online: . Although I'm not aware of anyone who's using Keisler in the classroom today, it's under a Creative Commons license, and there is a newer book by Guichard and Koblitz that incorporates a bunch of material from Keisler: . In the world of the digital commons, it's a little hard to define how old a book is. It's like asking how old a bacterium is. Bacteria are in some sense immortal. They just evolve.

Another wonderful old calc book that is still in print is Calculus Made Easy, by Silvanus Thompson, 1910.

I noticed that another answer to this question got heavily downvoted for referring to a book published in the 1980's. The question was: 'What are the oldest books regularly used in your field (and which don't feel "outdated")?' It didn't specify what "used" meant -- used in research, teaching, personal study, ...? The lower you get on the educational totem pole, the shorter the half-life of a book. Someone posted that they liked Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, but that doesn't mean it's being used for teaching number theory to undergrad math majors. For freshman calc, it is extremely unusual for anybody to use anything more than 5 years old. The community college where I teach has an explicit rule forbidding the use of books of more than about that age.

share|cite|improve this answer
+1 for the nuanced interpretation of "used." – John Stillwell Jan 10 '13 at 4:35

Two old books by David Mumford are not mentioned above (unless I am wrong):

1) Introduction to Algebraic Geometry (preliminary version of first 3 Chapters)

 (published and distributed by Harvard math. dpt., bound in red !, and containing 444 pages.)

  At that time (around end of 1960's ), this book was the unique good way to be introduced to theory of schemes . The EGA's were not helpful.
  In 1988, it became "The Red Book of Varieties and Schemes "(Springer). He is still excellent for learning ,and teaching , schemes.

2) The classical and fundamental: Geometric Invariant Theory (Springer, 1965),

  It has two enlarged editions : 1982, 1994.
share|cite|improve this answer

Cassels and Frohlich (editors) on class field theory is regularly reprinted.

share|cite|improve this answer
It is reprinted, but as a participant in a long struggle by various people to get it reprinted, I have to say that "regularly" is the wrong adverb here. – Timothy Chow Dec 30 '12 at 23:53

"Projective Geometry" by Coxeter (1963), "Finite Geometries" by Dembowski (1968) and "Projective Planes" by Hughes and Piper (1973), still serve as great textbooks for these topics.

share|cite|improve this answer
I wonder why there is a downvote at the time of this comment. I particularly think that "Finite Geometries" by Dembowski is still referred to today... (+1). – knsam May 18 '15 at 3:18
It certainly is. Was there a downvote? Wow! – Anurag May 18 '15 at 3:38
@the person who downvoted this: it will be much more constructive to write a comment to explain your issue with this answer. – Anurag May 18 '15 at 3:43

Mathematical Analysis By Zorich

share|cite|improve this answer
I'm really surprised at the suggestion that a book first published in the 1980ies should be a serious contender for "oldest books regularly used" in classical analysis – Martin Dec 30 '12 at 15:17
+1, for the reasons explained in my answer – Ben Crowell Jan 10 '13 at 2:13

When I was an undergrad, at the turn of the millenium, I took a complex analysis class that used (an English translation of) Knopp's 1936 Funktionentheorie.

share|cite|improve this answer

In classical invariant theory, both "The Algebra of Invariants" by Grace and Young and "An introduction to the algebra of quantics" by Elliott are still much in use. The latest edition of Grace and Young is 1903 and of Elliott 1913.

share|cite|improve this answer
It seems these were already mentioned in Abdelmalek Abdesselam's answer. – user9072 Jan 2 '13 at 20:04

Most of the textbooks I use are quite new. The old books are the exception.

The oldest book about mathematics I use is Hajós György: Bevezetés a geometriába, a textbook on elementary geometry (in the sense of Euclid). The first edition is from 1950, I have a copy published in 1960. (Edit: it seems there's a German translation.)

I'm also using Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming, does that count as old now? The translation of the first volume is based on the second edition, of which the original was published in 1973.

share|cite|improve this answer

My field is dominated by older books, it seems. Gilmer's Multiplicative Ideal Theory came out in 1972 and it's nearly unmatched in the content it covers. We're currently using Kaplansky's Commutative Rings book for the Commutative Algebra course I'm taking at UCR; Atiyah and Macdonald's book is also considered a standard reference for those kinds of courses, and it came out in 1969. And, of course, you can't forget Bourbaki. I'm also partial to Zariski and Samuel's Commutative Algebra texts over other texts in the field, which came out in 1958 and 1961.

share|cite|improve this answer

I would like to mention about M. Postnikov's geometry series, Lectures on geometry which I always refer to when I need some coherent view inbetween geometry and analysis.

Sometimes I may refer to Hopf and Alexanderoff's Topologie in order to gain some authority...

share|cite|improve this answer

protected by Scott Morrison Oct 12 '13 at 11:46

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.