I admit I’ve always been a big fan of the In A Nutshell book series from O’Reilly. The latest edition of XML In A Nutshell meets my expectations by providing a concise, informative XML reference for any developer’s desk. One word of caution is necessary: The book is not geared toward the XML novice—it is a reference to be used by those familiar with the technology. There is a plethora (books, Internet resources, etc.) available for learning XML and related technologies.

Accessible content
The book’s size (9 by 6 inches) and approximately 600 pages offer a relatively compact package. One of my pet peeves is a computer book so large you need a forklift to carry it. The size makes it easy to thumb through, and the pages are tabbed (black boxes), so information is easy to locate. Additionally, the table of contents and index are indispensable avenues to easily locate the required technical details.

XML in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition: A Desktop Quick Reference

By W. Scott Means, Elliote Rusty Harold
O’Reilly & Associates
June 2002
634 pages
ISBN: 0-596002920
List price: $39.95

The book includes four sections:

  • XML Concepts—This section covers the fundamental technologies that form the core of XML. This includes XML, DTDs, namespaces, and Unicode. Brief introductions and examples are provided.
  • Narrative-Centric Documents—The second section covers the technologies used for narrative or presentation. These include XSLT, CSS, Xpath, and RDDL. The book is not a comprehensive guide to either, but each initiative is explained with corresponding examples.
  • Data-Centric XML—The biggest area of XML adoption is working with data. This section focuses on the technologies available for working with XML data. The Simple API for XML (SAX), Document Object Model (DOM), and XML Schemas dominate this section.
  • Reference—The book closes with an extensive reference section. A quick reference is provided for the technologies covered in the book, including XML 1.0, DTDs, schemas, XSLT, and SAX. Although these specifications are in a state of flux, the reference is great to have at your fingertips.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the reference section (300-plus pages), but this is the appeal of the Nutshell series of books. A developer in the heat of a project can easily locate the necessary technical details to keep moving forward.

XML is changing, so why bother?
It is true that XML and related technologies are in a constant state of change, so the information in the book can quickly become dated. On the other hand, the core aspect of the technologies remains constant, so the book will always be useful. Additionally, the products supporting XML cannot keep up with every new development. Consequently, the book’s information is more reliable than first imagined.

A valuable asset
I have already stated my bias, but I love XML In A Nutshell. The second edition covers the newer technologies like XSL-FO, XHTML, and Xlink. The wealth of information available in one location is a valuable addition to any developer’s toolbox.

As an example, I was recently working on a project involving XML Schemas. I am still developing my schema knowledge; so my mind gets stuck in the DTD mode of think at times. I was banging my head with a schema syntax problem when I looked at my bookshelf where XML In A Nutshell offered a lifeline. I grabbed the book, easily located the Schema reference section (black page tabs), and quickly found the information (variable types) necessary to remove the obstacle. Many developers are quick to point out that an Internet search could easily find the answer, but I disagree the answer would be found as quickly. I find Internet searches often consume more time than anticipated, and they often lead to tangential browsing, a real waste of time.

A worthy investment
Experienced developers working with XML should add this book to their bookshelf as a valuable investment that will repay in time saved and knowledge gained. On the flip side, all XML newbies should steer clear until gaining a better understanding of the technologies involved.