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Book Review

Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML
by Eric Freeman, Elisabeth Freeman

ISBN-13: 978-0596101978
Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc.
Pages: 694

Looking for a guide on how XHTML and CSS are used to complement each other and produce good looking and well structured web pages? Several books cover the topic, but this one is truly unique in its approach.

The concept behind the Head First series is originally the brainchild of Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates. It’s designed in a way that makes the content stick, even long after you’ve put down the book, and is a mix of ideas from cognitive science and learning theory. For example, as social skills seem to have given an evolutionary advantage to mankind, this book utilizes that brain-wiring by littering the chapters with pictures of people and much of the text is presented as dialogs.

The result is a book that looks way different and actually somewhat silly compared to other technical books. But don’t let the looks fool you; the material is accurate, in-depth and the authors are not only great writers but know their subject inside out. And it does work! Besides, it’s really fun and interesting to read and that is probably the main reason that learning is so fast from the Head First books.

Even though the initial chapters present rather basic material (an overview of the different HTML elements, hyperlinks, simple CSS styling of fonts and backgrounds, etc) I kept reading them and was deeply impressed with the pedagogy behind it. It’s truly brilliant and the reader is never left with any questions (for example, when discussing font styling, different font families are discussed too).

Besides the technicalities, the authors also teach good practices. They explain how to write strict, standard-conforming XHTML and why you want to do that. They focus on keeping XHTML for structure and using CSS for the presentation. The later was the highlight of the book for me, particularly as they often present more than one way of styling a page with the pros and cons clearly discussed.

In order to produce modern web applications you’ll need more than this book. The authors acknowledge this by putting together a list of 10 topics they didn’t cover. However, in order to be effective with those (e.g. server-side programming, JavaScript) you’ll have to know XHTML and CSS and I cannot think of a better introductory book on the subject; great work! Now I’m just waiting for Head First Common Lisp…

Reviewed July 2007

©2005 Adam Petersen