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HTML Books for Beginners

If you are beginning to learn HTML and some of the associated processes such as stylesheets, JavaScript, Perl, or Java, I recommend not buying a book for awhile. Use the Web first, then buy books that fill in more specific information for you. But if you must have a book at your side to learn as you go, I have a few suggestions.

Review by Phil Stripling

The world of HTML is changing so rapidly that books on the topic are generally out of date by the time they hit the virtual shelves at Amazon.com. If you buy several books, eventually you will end up with the equivalent of a shelf full of books on HTML 2.0 and 3.2, when what you really want to work on is XML, SMIL, and who knows what will be next. I am serious in suggesting that you try Web- based resources first. I have a very simple template called A Simple Template along with links to additional help if you want to use the Web for your knowledge base.

My theory is that HTML is fairly easy to learn, so get a handle on the basics, find the areas where you really want to work (JavaScript, Java, XML), and buy a book specializing in that. Either find basic books in the library or go to used book stores and get ones that other people read once and discarded. Do not spend the full price on a book you will not get full value out of.

On the other hand, I also know how helpful it is to have that old- fashioned book right there on your desk where you can look at the examples and type without having to switch among your text editor, HTML WYSIWYG program, browser, and graphics program, all wanting to hog your memory and your monitor. So if you must clutter your desk with dead trees, here are my recommendations.

All of Sams.net "Unleashed" series are good beginner's books. They are huge, and they are crammed with tons of stuff. Some come with CD-ROMs for you to use. They may seem intimidating if you are new to the topic, but they will give you much more for your money than a simpler, thinner book aimed at the newby. For dislcosure, I authored four chapters of the first edition of HTML 4 Unleashed. I get no fees for promoting the books; however, I do think the series is good enough that I have HTML 3.2 & CGI Unleashed, Perl 5 Unleashed (out of print), and Dynamic Web Publishing Unleashed, all bought with my own money.

It is obvious from my Web site that I am not heavily into design issues. My preference is to rely on content to drive readership rather than attractive layout. My favorite book on design is Robin Williams's book The Non-Designer's Design Book. It has nothing to do with the Web; it is aimed at people who are using their desk- top computers to design letterheads, newsletters, brochures, business cards -- all printed matter. The theory and philosophy carries over to some extent to the Web as long as you understand that you will never control the layout exactly using today's browsers, HTML, and style sheets. I think Ms. Williams hits the mark with this book. I used her suggestions to design my business cards and letterheads for my legal practice, and I regularly get compliments on their appearance.

Unfortunately Ms. Williams forgot the Web is not paper in her book The Non-Designer's Web Book, co-authored with John Tollett. Although they pay lip- service to the issue of lack of control, they try to do it anyway, and use nonstandard HTML in a vain attempt to make Web pages look like paper. Mr. Tollett even suggests using reserved characters, instructing readers to ignore the warnings given by the HTML editor. Sorry, guys. You missed the boat on this book.

For my needs, style sheets, like HTML, are not rocket science, and I have only one book -- HTML Stylesheet Sourcebook by Ian S. Graham. It has never failed to answer any questions I have.

For JavaScript, I use Danny Goodman's The JavaScript Bible and O'Reilly's JavaScript, the Definitive Guide by David Flanagan. Both are excellent. JavaScripts are useful for a number of things; I use them to screen my feedback form before it is sent off to the perl script for heavy lifting. Also take a look at the demonstration scripts at Legal Assistance on the Web; the scripts there are freely available for your own use and modification if you find something useful.

The nice thing about JavaScript is that it runs on your user's computer, putting the processing burden there rather than on your server. The issues with JavaScript are that (1) some organizations prohibit their employees from enabling JavaScript on their browsers for security reasons; (2) current handheld devices such as the Palm Pilot do not support JavaScript, and handheld devices are touted as the Next Big Thing for Web access. You cannot rely on JavaScript for essential services (especially navigation) since you cannot rely on your customers having JavaScript- enabled browsers.

That leaves a language that runs on your server to do your user interaction. I have been using Perl because of its availability and the huge number of freely available scripts online. In addition to Perl 5 Unleashed, I have Introduction to CGI/Perl by Brenner and Aoki (out of print), and Creating Cool Web Pages With Perl (out of print) by Jerry Muelver. These books center around the Common Gateway Interface rather than on how to use Perl in general. There are tons of scripts available on the Web, but unless you have some understanding of Perl, including knowing where it lives on your server, few of the scripts will run without some tweaking, including the scripts provided with these books. I tend to dismiss the "Dummies" series of books just on the principal of the thing, but I have to grudgingly admit that if you want to learn Perl, and you have looked at other books without success, try Perl for Dummies by Paul Hoffman. Be sure you get at least the second edition, as this one covers Perl 5, the current version of Perl.

Then to put it all together, there is Using CGI, another huge book published by Que. This book runs the gamut from designing and implementing CGIs on your pages through integrating the interactivity with C/C++, Perl, tcl, Java, JavaScript, and cookies.

See what I mean about having too many books sitting on your shelf? I hate to say this, but I have not mentioned all the books now on my shelf, nor those that I have donated to the library. These are just the ones I am currently getting some use out of.

By the way

Validate your markup.

You never know what new piece of hardware is going to take the Web by storm and fail utterly on your carefully handcrafted markup that looks so perfect on your 17- inch monitor under Windows with Internet Explorer. If you write valid HTML, you do not have to worry about your page blowing up on the Next Big Thing.

Order from Amazon.com Order HTML 4 Unleashed

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