CSS Pocket Reference, 3rd Edition

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2007-12-12.

CSS Pocket Reference, 3rd Edition

For Web developers who appreciate the value of separating Web content from its presentation, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) has proved a godsend, because it allows all of the styling of a website to be organized in CSS files separate from the site's semantic content, in HTML files (possibly dynamically generated). Yet to make this styling power possible, CSS must incorporate a long list of syntax elements, including hundreds of selectors, properties, and values. Thus it can be quite handy for the developer to have on hand a concise summary of CSS, such as the CSS Pocket Reference, authored by Eric A. Meyer.

The book was published by O'Reilly Media on 5 October 2007, under the ISBN 978-0596515058. CSS itself has evolved along with other Web technologies, and this book is now in its third edition, having been updated to reflect the ongoing changes in CSS; the book now covers CSS2 and CSS2.1. On the book's Web page, O'Reilly offers an online table of contents, as well as ways for the visitor to view and submit errata (none as of this writing) and reviews for the book. Unlike most technical publishers, O'Reilly now makes available previews of their books' contents, in the form of a table of contents with links to the first few paragraphs of each section, including tables and illustrations.

Despite the growth in the number of elements in CSS, and the attention paid to each one of them by the author of CSS Pocket Reference, the book is still small enough to fit in a pocket, at only 168 pages. The book's material is organized into 18 unnumbered sections, preceded by some notes on the book's typographical conventions, and followed by an essential index. The bulk of the material is found in the Property Reference section. Other sections explain how to add styles to HTML and XHTML pages; CSS rule structure and style precedence, including inheritance and the cascade; element classification and display roles; visual layout; rules on floating and positioning; and table layout. Subsequent sections cover CSS value types and units, and selectors, including some of the newest additions to CSS, such as the adjacent sibling selector and the language attribute selector. Just before getting into the details on properties, Eric Meyer discusses pseudo-classes and pseudo-elements, which have made it possible for Web developers to create rather robust and attractive site navigation using CSS exclusively, without any need to resort to images and JavaScript for rollover effects and other navigation eye candy.

For each element of CSS that is covered in all of the sections mentioned above, the types of information presented to the reader can vary, depending upon the category of element. But they generally include the element's possible values, a default value, what elements it can apply to, whether it is inherited, its computed value, a brief description of the element, at least one example illustrating its usage, what browsers support it, and oftentimes a note on its usage. Consequently, this new edition of the book, like its predecessors, should prove more than adequate for most CSS reference needs.

As with any computer book, there are several ways in which this one could be improved. Any reader using the book to look up a particular element, has two possible ways of doing so: They could first consult the index, and, assuming the element is listed there, go straight to the page indicated. But most readers, knowing that the elements in each section are listed alphabetically, will probably open up the book near the front or the back, and begin flipping backward or forward, respectively, hoping to spot the element of interest as quickly as possible, given its alphabetical ordering. That individual will likely immediately spot an obvious problem with the book: The pages have no running titles (the words that indicate the first element discussed on that page, and typically listed at the very top of each page). Inclusion of such running titles in the next edition of the book, would make it much faster to use.

Another valuable addition would be some sort of table listing all of the CSS elements and their level of support within the most commonly used Web browsers and, in the case of Internet Explorer, the most commonly used versions of the browser. Also, on page 48 of the book, at the beginning of the Property Reference section, it has a subhead of "Visual Media", which suggests that there are other subheads within that section, for other media types; but I was unable to find any.

All of these problems concern the publisher's choice of material. My last criticism concerns the layout of that material in the print version of the book. Because this diminutive volume has narrow pages, and they are tightly glued together in the binding, it is imperative that the publisher of such a book provide plenty of white space in the inner margins (those closest to the binding), so the reader does not have to crack open the book too much in order to read the text closest to the binding. Repeatedly opening up the book far enough to read those inmost words, will over time weaken and eventually destroy the binding. In contrast, a small reference book like this has no need for much outer margin. Sadly, O'Reilly got it backwards with this volume, with relatively wide and useless outer margins, and inadequate inner margins.

Aside from the aforementioned flaws — all of which can be remedied in the future — CSS Pocket Reference is a compact and neatly organized gem of a book, packed with information of value to busy Web programmers.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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