Save your money: Three bad Linux books

Not all Linux books are created equal. Some are amazingly good, and definitely worth buying. Others are a waste of money. Three specimens identified in this article are of the latter variety.

The technical book market has seen legions of Linux-related books come through Amazon and brick-and-mortar store chains like Barnes & Noble. Over the years, I have acquired quite a few of them. On my shelf right now are:

  • A Practical Guide to Linux Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming (two editions)
  • Automating UNIX and Linux Administration
  • Debian GNU/Linux 3.1 Bible
  • How Linux Works
  • Learning Debian GNU/Linux
  • Linux Administration: A Beginner's Guide
  • Linux Cookbook
  • Linux in a Windows World
  • Linux Network Administrator's Guide
  • Linux Network Servers (two editions; one titled Linux Network Servers 24 Seven)
  • Linux Security (two editions)
  • Linux Server Security
  • Linux Shell Script Programming
  • Linux Timesaving Techniques
  • Mastering Linux
  • Multitool Linux
  • Running Linux
  • SuSE Linux Installation & Configuration Handbook
  • The Complete Reference: Linux
  • Troubleshooting Linux Bible
  • Understanding the Linux Kernel
  • Unix and Linux System Administration Handbook (and the older Unix System Administration Handbook edition)

In addition to these, I have several more in boxes (number of them unknown right now), several BSD Unix books that provide information relevant to Linux use and administration, and a number of more general topic books that touch on Linux (such as Security Complete, Wireless Security Hacks, and Firewalls 24 Seven). I did not list books that have little or nothing to do with end-user and administrator issues, such as The UNIX Programming Environment, which is actually about C programming.

Of all of these books, one of them gets special treatment as a particularly good specimen in its own article, A Practical Guide to Linux Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming. Another one of these plus two of them that I do not think I own any longer because I got rid of them a long time ago (though I suppose they might be in a box somewhere), also deserve special mention:

  • Linux eTudes
  • Linux Pocket Guide
  • Multitool Linux

These books deserve special mention for quite the opposite of the reason the Practical Guide gets its own article. They are relatively poor examples of Linux books and, in my estimation, not worth the money.

Linux eTudes

Let us start with the worst of the three.

The problem with Linux eTudes is summed up very easily and succinctly. It is not actually a Linux book; it is an application book. Worse yet, it is not a very comprehensive or useful application book.

Rather than teach the user about how filesystem administration on Linux works, or even how it differs from filesystem administration on MS Windows, Linux eTudes teaches the user how to click buttons in Konqueror. Rather than teach the user how to do file processing with the wealth of powerful tools at the Unix and Linux user's disposal, it teaches the user how to click buttons in Kedit. Fear not; it also teaches the user how to click buttons in GNOME applications.

Ultimately, it is exactly like one of those books like Microsoft Office 2007 for Seniors, except that one can safely assume that the majority of people making the switch from MS Windows to a Linux distribution already know how to click buttons in MS Windows Explorer and Notepad, and will be able to transfer that knowledge effectively to equivalents that run within the X Window System.

Linux Pocket Guide

As with A Practical Guide to Linux Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming, I wrote a review of this at Amazon. Unlike that other book's review, my review of the Linux Pocket Guide did not elicit an email from the publisher asking me if they could quote me in the book, or offering me a free copy of a newer edition. My Amazon review of the Linux Pocket Guide bears the title "Good enough, but not great," and reads:

It's full of concise little notes that might be useful to a relatively new Linux user or system administrator. On the other hand, I found it depressingly Fedora-centric. I made some use of it in the first couple months after I bought the book, but subsequently haven't opened it. In fact, I just went looking for it to refresh my memory for this review, and couldn't even find it, thanks to my lack of interest in using it now. There are better books to use as Linux references than this.

It may be handy to carry around in your toolbag, if you work with Fedora Core Linux systems on a regular basis outside of your own home territory (where you presumably have better references), but otherwise its usefulness is suspect. Of these three books I would not recommend, this is the only title still being printed, and it is the one I have found the most useful -- which is not saying much.

Multitool Linux

The book Multitool Linux was probably the best of the bunch, for a beginning Linux user. It did cover some important capabilities of Linux-based systems that users should learn about, such as email encryption with GnuPG. Unfortunately, almost everything in the book suffers from at least one of three problems:

  1. It overcomplicates things with shell scripts, ugly work-arounds, and poor configuration practices that are simply not necessary.
  2. Many problems are addressed with a single solution that assumes the user wishes to use a tool that comes with exactly the GUI environment one of the book's authors uses, rather than taking an approach that is portable across different system configurations.
  3. Application-specific approaches result in solutions that may be inapplicable in many cases, and that become dated and obsolete very quickly.

Flipping through it quickly gives one the impression that it usefully covers a very wide range of needs for Linux users, including creating digital archives of music from your collection of vinyl records and building Webmail servers. First impressions can be deceiving. In all the years since I purchased the book back in 2003, picking up the book and seeking an answer to a problem has never yielded a solution of any practical use to me. By contrast, the FreeBSD Handbook, not even designed for Linux-based systems, has solved many of the problems I would have expected Multitool Linux to usefully address.

Save your money

Linux eTudes and Multitool Linux are out of print, and utterly obsolete, but they are still available for purchase on the Internet. Avoid them. What little benefit they might once have provided, they will certainly have lost that dubious value in the years since they were published. Linux eTudes in particular is like a horribly watered down, bland, uninspired version of Multitool Linux with a prettier cover and a fraction of the page count.

As mentioned above, the misleadingly titled Linux Pocket Guide may be of some (limited) value to certain users, but for general Linux knowledge it is terribly hampered by its focus and small format. Most of what it provides is easily duplicated by judicious use of manpages or the Web, depending on what you find easier to use as a source of documentation.

If you encounter one of these books, my advice is to either save your money or buy something else. I recommend A Practical Guide to Linux Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming, though you might be pleasantly surprised by the value a Linux admin can get out of the FreeBSD Handbook as well -- and it will not cost you a dime to read online.