Every Web developer knows that Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) makes it possible to separate the contents of Web pages from the styling of the elements on those pages. This in turn confers tremendous advantages, such as allowing site-wide changes of appearance to be made just once, in a single stylesheet file, rather than in all of the pages containing the affected elements. But the syntax and proper usage of CSS is not as simple as implied by many HTML/CSS books, most of which fail to provide enough detail as to how CSS is applied to page elements. Web developers relying upon these books soon find themselves hitting those limits, and becoming frustrated when trying to debug Web pages. CSS: The Definitive Guide, authored by CSS expert Eric A. Meyer, aims to fill that gap.
Published by O'Reilly Media on 7 November 2006, under the ISBN 978-0596527334, this title is now in its third edition. The first edition appeared in May 2000, and the second in January 2004 — with each one establishing the book as an immediate favorite among hard-core Web programmers. Each revision brought it up to date with the evolution of CSS as a standard, its support among the most popular Web browsers, and its usage within the Web development community. This latest edition covers CSS2 and CSS2.1, but does not include the CSS3 modules, including those that have reached Candidate Recommendation status, because their implementation is largely incomplete among most of the browsers.
Web veteran Eric Meyer presents the book's material in a methodical manner, starting with an overview of CSS's purpose and advantages, and quickly moving into the details of the technology: selectors, structure, inheritance, values, units, fonts, text properties, visual formatting, padding, borders, margins, colors, backgrounds, floating, positioning, tables, lists, and generated content (e.g., bullets of unordered lists). The last two chapters address user interface styles (system fonts and colors, cursors, and outlines) and non-screen media (such as paged and aural content). The book's 536 pages are organized into a total of 14 chapters and three appendices. The first appendix is a complete CSS property reference, spanning more than 40 pages, with visual, page, and aural properties grouped separately. For each property, Meyer explains its purpose, its valid values, the initial value, what elements it applies to, whether it is inherited, its computed value, and additional notes (if any). The second appendix is a reference for the selectors, pseudo classes, and pseudo elements. The third and final appendix is much shorter than the first two, but no less interesting, as it discusses a sample HTML 4 stylesheet, which is presented in the CSS2.1 specification as the recommended style sheet for developers to use.
As with all of their other titles, O'Reilly Media offers a Web page devoted to this book, where visitors will find links to online versions of the book cover, table of contents, index, registration form, reader reviews, and errata (of which there are none, as of this writing). In addition, the page has offers to receive a volume discount, and to read the book online as part of O'Reilly's Safari service.
Anyone who is considering purchasing this book might initially be concerned by the dearth of feedback on the websites of the publisher and the major online booksellers — in the form of few reader comments, and no reported errata. The prospective reader may wrongly conclude that this indicates a lack of interest in the book, and thus it must be unpopular — probably for good reason. But just the opposite is true, as demonstrated by the book's sales rank on Amazon.com alone: #4631, as of this writing. Unlike far too many of the other HTML/CSS books available, this one does not engender scathing reviews by customers angry with the books' shoddy writing and sloppy mistakes. Rather, Meyer's contribution is the type of solid reference book that the discerning Web developer will quietly place on their desk or bookshelf, within easy and frequent reach — possibly displacing a dog-eared first or second edition of the same title. Furthermore, the absence of errata should suggest that most if not all kinks have been worked out of the book, and not that the book is failing to receive careful readings.
CSS: The Definitive Guide benefits not just from its multiple revisions, but also from Eric Meyer's clear and complete writing style. Unlike his more advanced books, this one is far more approachable, making it possible for the reader to easily jump into the midst of any topic and quickly pick up the thread — as is essential for any technical reference work. The theoretical discussions and the sample code demonstrate his abundant experience in using CSS in the real world, discovering or verifying its idiosyncrasies, and pushing it to its limits. Most of the critical visual and positioning topics are well illustrated with diagrams and sample output, few of which are weakened by the lack of color in the grayscale figures. Last and certainly not least, readers should be pleased that the book's material has been updated for Internet Explorer 7, which promises to fix many inexcusable problems in earlier versions of the browser.
Rarely does one come across a programming book that has no significant flaws, and will likely become a favorite resource for developers everywhere. CSS: The Definitive Guide is a comprehensive, well-written, and welcome addition to the library of any Web developer who wishes to understand and utilize CSS better.