Editorials -- Choosing the Right 'Tech' Book
Choosing the Right 'Tech' Book
These are trying times. It's hard to keep up sometimes, never mind getting ahead. Technology races on and, whether we like it or not, we must somehow keep up. Our education, career and maybe even life depends on it.
There is a lot of information out there, some helpful and some not. You can find information practically at your fingertips on the Web these days, and yet I still find myself reaching for a book when I need to learn about something. I guess it's that, even though I've been into computers since the very beginning, I'm kind of old school... plus you can't really curl up to your computer screen before bed to read a chapter of your favorite novel or clarify some detail about something that will keep you up all night otherwise.
That's where a good book on the subject (any subject) comes in. But how do you choose one? Books are relatively expensive, just ask any university student, so it pays to make the right choice when it comes to your reading/reference material.
Judging a Book by Its Cover
You know the old expression... "Don't judge a book by its cover". Yet this behavior is still something that we all do, at least to some extent. I'll admit that the first thing I look at is a book's cover. My excuse? I'm visually oriented... and I'm sticking to that :)
All kidding aside, though, take a moment to check out the cover... you may find some useful info there. For example, many tech books now list their intended audience level (Beginner, Intermediate and Expert Level) somewhere on the cover. They may also provide URLs for the publisher's and/or the author's Web site.
The very next thing I do with a new book, though, is I turn it over and attack the book-buying decision from the rear... seriously, though, I do turn the book over so that I can take a look at one of its most important elements... its index. Yep, the index is what makes me continue exploring a given book vs. popping it back on the shelf from which it came and grabbing the next contestant.
The book may contain the most relevant information, but if you can't find it within the hundreds of pages (or even thousands of pages with some programming language tomes) it won't be doing you much good.
When I write a book one of the things that has appeared on every contract I ever signed is a $1,000 charge for indexing, no matter which publisher I'm writing for. In the beginning I tried to have that charge reversed (better in my pocket than the publisher's I figured), but as I came to understand the importance of a really good index, I stopped asking. In fact, having done some indexing work more myself recently, I think that $1,000 is too little now, but don't tell the publisher I said so :)
Things to Look For
As you glance through the index, look for words common to the technology, i.e. "buzzwords." For example, if you're looking through a "Photoshop for the Web" book you'd expect to see terms such as JPG, JPEG, PNG, GIF and transparent GIF listed, along with the full-text versions of the acronyms (portable network graphic - PNG, joint photographic expert group - JPG, etc).
Take a quick look at how extensive the index is compared to the overall size of the book. I'm not saying that the index needs to be 10% of the page count, but you can't successfully navigate a 1,000-page monster manual with a 3-page index.
Take a couple of minutes to look up some of the index entries. Are they correct? Does the information on the page pointed to make sense? Answering these questions will help you decide to stay with that book, or to move on to another title.
If I'm satisfied with the Index, I move on to the Table of Contents. Here I'm initially interested in matching up the contents to the audience level. A beginner's-level book on PHP for the Web probably shouldn't contain a chapter called "Advanced Sorting Algorithms," for example. On the other hand, that might be something I'd be looking for in a more advanced programming manual.
If the Table of Contents of a book is good enough, you should have a pretty good idea whether or not the book will fit your needs. A good Table of Contents should pretty much describe the book... of course this partly depends on how the author named the chapters, headings, sub-headings, etc. If these aren't really helpful, will the book be?
Does the book contain figures? A book about Photoshop would need to be filled with them. Take a look at some of them. Are they clear enough to be helpful? Do they actually help you understand the material being presented? These are the questions you need to ask before you plunk down your hard-earned cash for a book.
What about color images? These are expensive to print and you'll be paying for them as part of the cost of the book. Do the color shots help, or are they fairly gratuitous product shots? I once excused myself from a book project over the contents of the color insert. I felt that the color images added nothing for the reader
and that the space could have been put to much better use. In the end, all I can say is that it's not a title that you'd find in my personal library.
A Word About Series
Maybe it's because of the success of the "Dummies" series, but publishers seem keen to group titles together with similar covers and styles, etc. As a book buyer, though, you need to keep in mind that every title is written by a different author with different editors, etc. You may find that a particular series suits you, but always be sure to check the points I made about the index, etc. Just because you liked 4 or 5 of the books in the "whichever" series, doesn't mean that you'll find the next one as helpful.
What about shopping online for books? Well, online bookstores, such as Amazon, seem to agree with some of my points in that they now make some of the contents of the books available online. You will usually find, for example, a book's table of contents listed. It's not quite the same as holding the book in your hand. On the plus side, though, there are no lineups at the checkout, you don't have to find parking and the store is open all night for those of us who like to compute into the wee hours of the morning.
I hope you found this information useful and that you'll find it helpful the next time you go book shopping.
In the meantime, here are the titles of some of the books covering most of the available space in my office and on my nightstand:
That's it for now... Be sure to check out our web graphics and photo-editing tutorials.
We'd like to hear from you... If you have any comments or questions don't hesitate to send us an e-mail.
Here's of list of our most popular graphics tutorials:
Quick Mask Have you ever wanted to do a little cutting and pasting and make it look as if your head was on someone else's body? Read more....
Transparent GIFs This technique demonstrates how to create transparent GIFs in Paint Shop Pro Read more....
Illustrating a Guitar - Part 1 It may seem to be quite an undertaking to create a realistic illustration of something like an electric guitar, but I wanted to challenge the ease-of-use of this software. Read more....
Creating Complex Shapes Drawing circles, squares, triangles , etc. is easy with a vector program. How do you combine these shapes to create something more complex, though? Follow this tutorial and you'll see how easy it can be to create just about any shape you need.
Download and try out the free demos and then save 10%, 20% and more when you decide to buy!
GrafX-Design.com has partnered with some of the best graphics software companies in the World to offer you terrific savings on your favorite programs.
We've been using AlienSkin's Photoshop Plug-ins for over a decade and they are still our favorites.
Create amazing, high-quality 3D graphics
Read our review of Xara 3D 6
or click the graphic below to download a free trial version