Be smart, buy smart: Finding the best IT books

Ever buy a useless IT book? Find out how a little legwork can help you avoid making this costly and frustrating mistake.

Trying to build your IT library can be an exercise in frustration—and economics. When you’re handing over $4.99 for a cheap sci-fi thriller, it’s no great loss if the writing is weak or the plot absurd. But when you’re putting up thirty dollars or more for an IT text, you want the money spent to be worth it.

My recent search for a book on JavaScript reminded me how important it is to do your homework before you buy a programming book. Hopefully, my methods will help save you a little time and money the next time you invest in an IT text.

You can’t judge a book by its…well, you know
All too often, we rush through the book-buying process focusing only on the title and find ourselves with nothing more than a weighty stack of fire kindling.

In my own search for the right IT text, a common problem I’ve run into is books that are short on content, using the first third or more of the book to present material that most programmers already know. Sometimes the content you’re seeking is so hard to find that you waste time, skimming pages for hours before realizing that the book simply doesn’t offer the information you’re seeking.

Even worse, many of the books I’ve bought offer sample code that won’t run, and even if the sample code does run, the authors are often lax about including comments within the code. Without these comments, it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to understand exactly what the authors are trying to accomplish.

So how do you know if a book’s content stands up to the promise of its cover? Short of taking up speed-reading, there’s no way to know for sure that the book will have exactly what you’re looking for until you spend some quality time with it, but there are some tricks to knowing if the book is worth its price.
We want to know if you’ve read a particularly helpful, informative, or well-written IT book. Send us a note and let us know the book’s title, author, and why you think it deserves special recognition.
The search is on
As every IT pro knows, the first and best place to start researching an IT book is the Internet, where sites often provide both helpful reviews and insightful reader comments. To begin my hunt for a new book on JavaScript, I first went to Amazon and searched the term, "JavaScript," which resulted in over 240 matches. Although many of the results didn't pertain directly to my application of JavaScript, the search did provide a wide range of reading material. I found a book that interested me—David Flanagan’s JavaScript: The Definitive Guide—by reading a brief review of it along with several reader comments on the site. The review and the reader comments were good enough to let me know that this book was worth looking into further.

Going straight to the source
While Amazon did not provide a link to the publisher’s Web site for my JavaScript book, it’s usually helpful to track the site down anyway, since it can serve as a great source of information and may contain material missing from retail sites.

After a little browsing on the Internet, I located the O’Reilly and Associates site and found the page for JavaScript: The Definitive Guide. Here, I was able to read a sample chapter, several professional and reader reviews, the table of contents, and the index. The sample chapter can give you an idea as to how the author explains the material, while the table of contents and index reveal how much of the book covers information that you might already know as well as how much of the book covers what you need to know.

Another helpful bit of information that most publishers offer is a book’s errata, which lists the errors that have been found in the text by the publishers or by geeks like us. I feel that the size of the errata may indicate the technical quality of the book, so the smaller the better. Plus, the types of errors that were made in a book can give you an idea about the types of problems you’ll run into when using the book. For example, if you want to buy a book to learn about JavaScript functions and you see that most of its errata pertain to its chapters dealing with functions, you might want to look elsewhere.

The bottom line is that not all IT books are created equally, and you owe it to yourself and your wallet to do a little digging before you find yourself with a bunch of forty-dollar paperweights.
Do you have a tip for buying the perfect IT book? Post a comment or write to Bob Johnson and share your thoughts.

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