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Friday, February 27, 2009

Mini-Review: Learning Java by Patrick Niemeyer and Jonathan Knudsen

Once upon a time there was a neat little book called Java in a Nutshell. It described the Java language, feature by feature, and did a great job of teaching the language. It was targeted at people who were already programmers in some other language, but at the time there weren't a lot of people who'd consider using a new and somewhat narrowly-defined language like Java as a first programming language.

The first edition was pretty compact, true to the "Nutshell" name. Then Java grew, and the book grew with it. Now the current edition is huge, and that's even after they've moved out a lot of the examples and more detailed explanations to make room for everything else.

For those looking to learn Java, O' Reilly, the publishers of Java in a Nutshell, have a different book. It's appropriately named Learning Java. Like the original Java in a Nutshell, it's targeted at people who already know how to program. The title and cover design of this book don't suggest that, however, my feeling is they suggest that this is a beginner's book. Which it isn't, and the text of the book itself never says that it is.

The book is a good overview of Java for programmers learning Java. Beyond assuming that the reader is a programmer, it also assumes familiarity with object oriented language concepts. It briefly sketches them out, but if you're not already familiar with C++, Smalltalk, Objective-C, or some other object oriented language this book is not the place to start.

Learning Java is amazingly comprehensive. Java is a huge language with a lot of features. In some places the book has to cover things very briefly, in others it takes time to delve in a bit deeper. Those places where things are covered briefly often give short shrift to the subjects covered. Several related features will all get covered together, and instead of each one getting its own code example, several features will be demonstrated in a single piece of code that mashes them all together in one omnibus program. This makes understanding each individual subject much harder. There are also a lot of code snippets through the book in places where a short, complete program would provide a much better illustration than a few isolated lines of code.

In compensation for this, there are some code samples in the book that are excellent demonstrations of Java's power as a programming language. For example there are complete programs for a basic web server and a basic web browser in the book. These are both good demonstrations of Java features and a good jumping off point for the reader to start their own program. Threads are likewise covered with useful examples.

These examples make the book worth owning. It makes a great second or third book for someone learning Java. I wouldn't recommend it as the primary book for learning Java, however, only as an adjunct to some other book. My inclination would be to use this as a "third book." The first book should be a good teaching book for the level of the learner. The second book should be a strong, focused reference book for the areas of the language that are most important to that person's learning level. The third book should be a backfill with a broader range of examples and be a source of explanations with a different perspective from the first book to help out when the first book falls short of being clear for the learner.

This book is one of my favorites of those I own for that "third book" role. I draw examples from it for my classes, and look to it for supplementary explanations of features of Java. I've used it with students having trouble with concepts in other texts, having them work through the related portions of this book. It's been a great help that way.

Final Grade: 75%, C

Pros:
Some wonderful example programs.
Very comprehensive.
No fluff.

Cons:
Crowds too much into too few stand-alone example programs.
Does a poor job of teaching object oriented concepts.
Many sections are rushed.

Recommendation:
Get it to fill out your Java library, the excellent examples and good descri1ptions of areas of Java often not covered well elsewhere makes it worth having on the shelf. Don't buy it as a primary learning text, however, no matter what your level as a programmer.
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