CSS: The Missing Manual

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2006-09-06.

CSS The Missing Manual

Ever since Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) first appeared on the Web scene in the late 1990s, a plethora of books have been written and published that purport to explain how CSS works, and how to make it work for you. So why would any publisher decide that what the technical world needs is yet another CSS book? Perhaps because they have taken a close look at the bulk of those available titles, and found them to be wanting — filled with overly theoretical explanations and sample code that is far too focused on some pet domain of the author. Such books may be adequate for the veteran Web developer, who has the time and inclination to separate the wheat from the chaff. But developers new to CSS need much more approachable material, with clear examples. Perhaps that is the thinking behind CSS: The Missing Manual.

Written by David Sawyer McFarland, CSS: The Missing Manual is published by O'Reilly Media, as part of their Pogue Press series, under the ISBN 978-0596802448, on 24 August 2009. The publisher maintains a Web page for the book, where visitors can find a link to register their copy of the book (does anyone do that?), a page for submitting errata (none yet, as of this writing), a form for posting a review on the O'Reilly site (again, be the first!), and a sample chapter (Chapter 1: Rethinking HTML for CSS) as a PDF file. There are also links for purchasing the book in the U.S. or the UK, and for reading the online version, as a part of O'Reilly's Safari service.

The book's 494 pages are organized into 14 chapters and three appendices, grouped into five parts. In addition, there is an index, as well as a terse but meaty introduction, which even includes a summary of HTML. The humor for which the Missing Manual books are known, begins early, in introduction, though in this case probably not intentionally: Page 9 claims that the book "is divided into four parts", and then lists the five parts. Before commenting upon those five-ish four parts, it should be noted that the table of contents runs seven pages, listing the book's parts, chapters, sections, and subsections. Future editions of the book would benefit from an overview table of contents, similar to those used in an increasing number of technical books, to good effect.

The 14 chapters cover most if not all of the essentials: writing HTML for CSS; creating styles and style sheets; determining what to style; using inheritance; using cascading; formatting text; setting margins, padding, and borders; styling graphics; styling links and navigation bars; styling tables and forms; creating float-based layouts; positioning page elements; creating print stylesheets; and writing maintainable CSS code. The three appendices include a CSS property reference, a discussion of CSS use in Dreamweaver version 8, and a listing of CSS resources to supplement the book.

On the positive side of the ledger, the author does a commendable job of clearly explaining all of the essential topics that the typical developer would need to understand in order to begin developing a robust website based on HTML and CSS, or reworking an existing site that is in desperate need of an overhaul. The clear explanations and bite-sized examples demonstrate that David Sawyer McFarland is not only an experienced Web developer, but likely has spent considerable time explaining to others how to do the same — as a writer, trainer, and instructor. This book is not his first, for he has previously written Dreamweaver: The Missing Manual.

One valuable aspect of the book under review, is that McFarland discusses how to overcome the most commonly encountered browser problems, in which Web pages employing CSS are not being formatted as one would expect and as specified in the CSS standards, by misbehaving browsers (that means you, "Internet Exploder"). Moreover, the book is also one of the first to document the significantly enhanced, long overdue, and welcomed CSS support in version 7 of the most commonly used Web browser (yes, we're still looking at you, "Browser by Bill").

The book is one in a series of many so-called Missing Manuals, whose tagline is "The books that should have been in the box", and whose website characterizes them as "Warm, witty, and jargon-free, [with] enough clarity for the novice, and enough depth and detail for the power user." In many respects, McFarland's latest contribution matches that description. In addition to the straightforward and yet comprehensive discussions of each topic, the author imbues his writing with a bit of humor, without overdoing it, or trying too hard, as is sometimes seen in other books covering subjects that admittedly can be quite dry.

On the negative side of the ledger, someone — or, more likely, some committee — somewhere along the decision chain, stipulated that almost every page of the book should be formatted so that the outside 1.5 inches, which is the easiest for a reader to see, should be consumed by a mostly empty and useless gutter, the bulk of which is filled with a light gray bar. This pushes the text, which slightly more than 4.5 inches wide, further in, toward the book's binding, and thus more difficult to read. This is true even though O'Reilly has wisely chosen to use RepKover, a flexible lay-flat binding. This exasperating style of layout is not characteristic of O'Reilly's books, which are generally much easier to read, with more sensible margins and often larger font.

One of the first principles taught to those learning Web design, is to avoid using white text on a black background. Such Web pages usually try to appear cool and edgy, but instead often comes off as immature in the eyes of an Internet veteran, and sinister to the Internet newbie. It doesn't work on websites, and it doesn't work in Web books. Sadly, O'Reilly chose to use white-on-dark-gray for many of the book's sidebars, making them difficult to read, especially as the sidebar text font size appears to be a bit smaller than that of the regular text.

In a nutshell, the content of this book is excellent, while the presentation of that content leaves much to be desired — ironic for a book focusing on CSS, whose primary purpose is to modularize and simplify presentation, neatly separating it from content. Ranking the content and presentation on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give them 9 and 5, respectively. Yet on balance, just as is true for most Web pages, the content is more important than its layout and other aesthetic considerations. CSS: The Missing Manual is a well-written, lighthearted, up-to-date, and easily accessible guide to modern CSS and how to use it in the real world.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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