Book Reviews

A Machine Made this Book: Ten Sketches of Computer Science by John Whitington

ISBN-13: 978-0957671126
Publisher: Coherent Press
Pages: 204

It's been a couple of years since I read OCaml from the Very Beginning by John Whitington. It is a great read that presents an accessible introduction to functional programming in general and OCaml in particular. Thus, I responded with an enthusiastic YES when John offered to send me his latest book: A Machine Made this Book. A Machine Made this Book covers a different topic and targets a different audience. A Machine Made this Book is a popular science book that promises to introduce computer science to the uninitiated. On a good day I like to view my self as at least half-competent in the topic, so I'm not really in a position to tell how well the book would work for a newcomer. However, what I found was a wonderful book that many professional programmers would enjoy and benefit from.

A Machine Made This Book focuses on typography and the publishing industry. John walks us through this fascinating world and explains how computers represent text and graphics. We get to learn how different fonts are built and represented. We learn about encodings and different resolutions. And sure, John walks the reader through the implementation of some of the actual algorithms. At the same time, John covers the history of publishing. The history parts are the absolute highlights to me. The topic is interesting in itself and having an enthusiastic author walk you though it is just great. Some of the examples travel into unexpected territories. For example, when discussing Unicode, John shows the encoding page of Linear A. Now, I happen to have an interest in dead languages and Linear A is a still undeciphered writing systems from ancient Greece. I found it marvelous that it's represented in Unicode (I guess you have to use all that encoding space for something).

The book is rich with illustrations and sketches. Just like John's previous books, A Machine Made This Book is written in an accessible and pedagogical style. And of course the book's typesetting and layout is just beautiful. As I pointed out initially, I'm not sure how well the book would meet its goal of introducing computer science to a newcomer in our field. But I do know that if you have any interest in typography or publishing you want to check out this book. It's a great read.

Reviewed May 2016