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Dr.Nikolai Bezroukov's Devil's
Advocate Commentary on "Thinking in Java" by Bruce Eckel.
Introduction. v.0.4. 04/05/98
Disclaimer: I would like to stress that the role of devil's advocate is to be critical. At the same time I believe than Java has a bright future and that TIJ can be listed among ten best books on Java. That's why I am writing this Commentary. This Commentary is a work in progress. Currently it is incomplete, buggy, and may contains bad links. All views expressed in the Commentary are my own. .
Introduction"Thinking in Java" (or TIJ for short) is a thick 1100 page volume with a really original, distinctive cover. For such a volume the book is reasonably priced (partially because there isn't a CD). All examples from the book and, what is even more important, the full text of the book are available from the author's website. TIJ can be considered as one of the first second-generation Java books with a more sober approach to the language. The book got very good rating in the Amazon.com (almost all are ten; BTW if you are using reviews from the www.amazon.com site, I advice you to drop one review with the highest and one with the lowest marks and use remaining for your judgment).
I like the cover too. The polished wood on the cover looks natural. It's definitely better than early religious paintings that now often used in other books, although the latter do provide a better metaphor for the religious zeal of some Java evangelists. BTW the cover is inspired by the "American Art & Crafts Movement" that emphasized the importance of the individual craftsman in the use of modern tools.
Writing an introductory book on Java is a pretty tricky task. The competition is very strong and with each new rellease of JDK the inflation of value is like inflation of the ruble after dissolution of the USSR (i.e. more than 100% a year ;-). There are more than 500 books on Java, and more than 80% of them are introductory. Than means that in just three years Java became third most important computer language after Basic (more than 3000 books), C/C++ (more than 2000 books) and Pascal (more than 900 books). There are more books on Java than on Fortran (less than 500), Cobol (less than 500), Lisp (less than 200) -- the languages with more than two decades of history. Java is fashionable and than means that a lot of books were created just to milk the cow. So buyers beware. I use a simple checklist to determine whether a particular introductory programming language book is worth reading:
1. Is the Donald Knuth article "Structured programming with GOTO" mentioned in a chapter on control structures and short-circuit AND and OR explained in the "if" statement?.
2. Is visibility rules and storage allocation mechanisms (especially difference between static and dynamic allocation) explained clearly using both examples and diagrams ?
3. Is the text of the book available electronically or on the CD?
4. Does the author have a personal web-site with an area devoted to the book ?
5. Does the book have examples and errata available on the WEB?
6. How practical are the examples and how much of the code can be reused ?
7. Whom the author recommends (the friends of my friends ...) ?
Not many books will pass this test, so the choice became much easier. TIJ passes all, but q.2 (no diagrams for storage allocation and visibility) and q.6 (some examples need improvement).
Bruce Eckel has found an interesting solution to make his book different despite a Java introductory books glut -- he published the book on the WEB first. At he states himself in the Foreword "it turned out to be the smartest thing I've ever done with a book". I have a similar experience in publishing my book "Computer virology" in 1989 in Russia first on floppy and then on paper. The fact that the book is available free is a definite advantage. The author benefit from comments and suggestions of early readers and the first edition will be more like the second in quality. Several publishers are now using this approach (see for example McGraw-Hill betabooks site or QUE Personal Bookshelf). If you are ordering from an Internet bookstore that provides the possibility of "try before you buy" approach. Moreover Java changed so rapidly than the book is often become obsolete before it goes out of print. This is partially the case with TIJ. Still the fact that the book is available in electronic form make a paper edition more attractive as you can use both simultaneously and makes changes and add comments to the electronic version of the book.
The book was typeset by the author in MS Word 97. That approach has one great advantage it usually makes the book much more up-to-date than a traditional typesetting, and the book looks much more fresh than other early 1998 books typeset in a traditional way. For example it contains a discussion of the JFC (a.k.a. Swing library) and from the point of view of new Java developments, it will probably remain competitive with books published until the end of 1998.
But such an approach is not without flaws. The main drawback of the typesetting style used is that the book lacks diagrams that will clarify concepts (probably due to some limitations of Ms Word 97). Layout is mostly plain vanilla text with a very few fonts. An important thoughts are not reiterated and were not put in a separate font. Regrettably, like most other books on Java, Java programs are all typeset at plain Courier with IMHO excessive spacing between the lines. Sometimes smaller font can be used in both examples and output listings. These two factors contributed to the volume of the book adding probably extra 10% to %20.
At the same time the method the author used for writing of the book permits richer typesetting of Java programs. It would be a great difference if the author will do that in future editions. Also MS Publisher should probably be used along with MS Word for typesetting and each chapter should be stored as a separate document instead of a single huge file.
The main complain about the book is almost complete absence of illustrations. Again, one of the reasons here are limitations of MS Word, but I believe there are workarounds, so this is a real drawback of the first edition, than need to be corrected. BTW Bruce Eckel seminar materials suggest that the author is a gifted artist (even played the saxophone) and he definitely can produce interesting illustrations.
The main idea of the book is right -- the programming language should be learned through experimentation with it. Examples are well structured to expose the properties of the language in question. Such an approach is very well suited for teaching. so the book is definitely recommended for the universities.
I would like to stress that despite being in the first edition TIJ is quite polished (all examples that I tested worked). Here the method of publishing of the book show its real advantages.
Now let's talk a little bit about competition. First there is a definite advantage that Bruce Eckel is an expert in C++ and has authored four books on C++. So his strongest competitors are the authors who have published books on C++. I read not so many of them and the list below is very limited:
Among other books that worth buying and reading I would like to mention Java in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference (The Java Series) by David Flanagan. Again there is no electronic version of the book available.
Online version of the book competes with other Java e-books and tutorials. See Yahoo!Java or www.developer.com for the most up-to-day list. Developer.com Java Programming Section is a very useful resource for links to programming in Java and and WEB programming (Perl, HTML, etc.). It contains more documents than I want to list here.
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