Head First C#


This book review was published by Slashdot, 2008-07-07.

Head First C#

For computer programmers who do not have a solid understanding of object-oriented programming (OOP), learning the C# programming language can be rather challenging, even if they have experience with C or C++, which at least would give them a head start over non-C programmers. Any developer in this situation may well want to begin the learning process with a book that aims to teach both OOP and C# in as gentle a manner as possible, with plenty of patient explanations and illustrative diagrams — such as those found in the book Head First C# by Andrew Stellman and Jennifer Greene.

Published by O'Reilly Media on 26 November 2007, under the ISBN 978-0596514822, Head First C# is one in a series of "Brain-Friendly Guides". The introduction to this particular book discusses how the series attempts to present the concepts and technical material in a way that is far more intellectually compelling and memorable than the approach currently taken by most books. Some of their guiding principles include: making things visual, oftentimes using novel and even outlandish diagrams; using a casual and conversational style; engaging the reader through exercises and questions; and spicing up the discussions with humor.

On the book's Web page, readers will find links to download the book's sample code, participate in a forum dedicated to the book, register their copy of the book, read and submit any errata (of which there are many), and submit a reader review and read those of other readers.

The book's material is organized into 15 chapters, covering the topics in a progressive order that would probably be most helpful for the inexperienced developer: the advantages to programming visual applications in C# and the Microsoft Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE); building a simple application to get started; the C# code produced by Visual Studio; basic C# language constructs; an introduction to objects and their components; data types, including arrays and references, and how C# allows you to work with them; protecting an object's data from unintended access, through encapsulation; extending classes through inheritance and subclasses; finding and using class interfaces, and the advantages of doing so; storing data in arrays, lists, and dictionaries; saving data in files and directories, as well as working with file streams and serialization; exceptions and debugging techniques; event handling; how to build complex applications; creating user interfaces with controls and graphics; object destruction and garbage collection; and connecting your C# programs to databases using LINQ. Interspersed throughout the book are three C# labs, which encourage the reader to put into practice their new programming skills, and thus better internalize the ideas of OOP and C# covered in the chapters preceding each lab. The lab applications comprise a racetrack simulator, a simple adventure game, and a re-creation of Space Invaders.

When they see this book for the first time, some prospective readers may be overwhelmed by its size, clocking in at 778 pages. Yet a sizable portion of those pages will read faster than those of the typical programming book, largely due to all of the diagrams and whitespace, which really help to break up the material and make it more digestible. However, what many might perceive to be a strength of the book, could be seen as a weakness by others. In fact, if the unnecessary diagrams and redundant material were to be removed from the book, it might end up only half its current size. But this may only be a deterrent for people who are carrying this book around, or who tend to be impatient and wish to get right to the point of any book they are reading, or who may be upset by the extra trees chopped down to double the number of pages (the book does not appear to have been printed on recycled paper).

Despite Head First C# being clearly intended as an introductory book to object-oriented programming in general, and C# in particular, the target audience especially may be frustrated by all of the errata and other sources of confusion that they will encounter. This is especially true when readers are doing their best to implement all of the sample applications, and struggling when, for instance, the code does not match the figure provided, or even the code on another page. For example, on page 50, the authors instruct the reader to drag a new PictureBox onto a new form, but readers will probably struggle to figure out where to drag it from. On page 105, the authors instruct the reader to flip back and look through the code, to fill in some class diagrams, but they don't clarify what code should be considered. Readers' comments on the online bookseller sites, list far more similar problems. In fact, that there are so many technical errors in this book is quite remarkable given that the technical review team comprised no fewer than 14 individuals! How could so many eyeballs miss so much?

The authors make a real point of reviewing material explained earlier, which generally is an effective approach for this type of book. But the repetition sometimes becomes excessive — enough to annoy even the greenest novice. For example, on page 445, we find the question: "Okay, I still don't get it. Sorry. Why are there so many different kinds of exceptions, again?"

On the other hand, the book has some real strengths, including those mentioned above for making the material more approachable. In particular, when the reader becomes accustomed to the visual style of presenting concepts, he or she will probably find it a faster approach to learning the ideas. Admittedly, veteran developers may still prefer the more narrative style of conventional programming books — especially when they encounter rather convoluted diagrams, such as that on page 292. Yet the illustrations are particularly potent for explaining interfaces, as done in Chapter 7.

Although the book will be of most value to newer programmers, experienced C# programmers will find topics of interest and perhaps even some language details and analysis that they have never previously encountered. For instance, some of the questions posed in the sections titled "there are no Dumb Questions", could be valuable — such as the comparison of File versus FileInfo, and when to use one over the other. Also, some of the utilities could help the reader for future development, such as the hex dumper program on page 432.

Sadly, Head First C# is weighed down by excessive redundancy and an errata-to-number-of-technical-reviewers ratio possibly unequaled by any other programming book. Yet, for any programmer new to object orientation and C#, this introductory book should prove an extremely comprehensible and reader-friendly resource.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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