"HTML 4 For the World Wide Web, Visual Quickstart Guide, Fourth Edition," Elizabeth Castro

Pros: How and why; straightforward and focused; lots of small helpful things
Cons: Could use more context in places
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 10/11/2001

Obligatory experience note: I am not an experienced web designer; I can only evaluate these books from a fresh perspective and hopefully give you information to help you make your own decision.

Formerly my knowledge of HTML has been awfully simplistic – the fanciest I got was stealing a background color code from someone else’s code, or maybe putting a spiffier graphic in my page as a substitute for an hrule (ooooh!).

But that isn’t going to cut it any more. I was trying to get a handle on organizing a project and realized that I couldn’t organize it until I had a better idea of the capabilities of the technologies I’d be using. I couldn’t just write it all and then co-opt my husband into “making it work.” It was a nice idea, but impractical at best.

Thus, I needed to learn HTML. I set about looking for some books. My husband offered me his, but although I consider myself a reasonably quick learner, a programmer I am not, and most of his books are intimidating tomes of information that I have trouble making sense of. Thus, off I went to Barnes and Noble. Between some poking around and careful reading of descriptions, and asking my husband for a few suggestions now and then, I came up with a reading list. I wanted things that were mostly aimed at someone with at least a slight bit of HTML experience, but who yet needed to be walked through some of the basics. (With at least one “For Dummies” book for backup in case anything confused me.) I began my odyssey with Elizabeth Castro’s “HTML 4 For the World Wide Web,” Fourth Edition, published in 2000 by Peachpit Press.

Hint: If you go looking for this book, don’t look for “Fourth Edition.” Just look for whichever edition was published most recently. HTML changes quickly these days, and you don’t want to accidentally end up with a book that’s way out of date. It’s entirely probable that there will be a fifth edition any day now, and if that’s the most recent one when you go looking, then that’s the one you want to buy at the time. I think that reviews like these mostly clue you on to which authors will help you the most, not which individual book editions.

Not for Complete Idiots…

Castro does assume that her reader has at least a few brain cells to rub together; I like this, some may not. I didn’t have to slog through lots of hand-holding or cheerleading to get to the useful stuff and I appreciated that. She covers things a bit quickly now and then, so this probably isn’t a book for the totally computer-shy. Sometimes, particularly in more advanced sections, I would have liked more context for her instruction – a better idea of the many ways in which a particular command might be used, for example. There are a few concepts that I’m still uncertain how to make use of.

…But This Isn’t Rocket Science

There are plenty of figures and diagrams everywhere! You don’t have to mentally translate the code into what it’s supposed to look like, because the book does it for you. Great stuff! Every now and then Castro will use metaphor-examples (particularly at the very beginning of the book), so if you’re having trouble wrapping your head around what something means, she may be able to help. The book is very thoroughly indexed and cross-referenced; you won’t ever get lost as to where to find something.

The examples are often quite amusing if you take the time to read through them, which might be helpful for those who are less than enthused at the idea of reading dry technical material. The book is very focused – it always stays on track, and doesn’t wander at all. It’s clearly organized, introducing a concept, explaining step-by-step how to implement it, and then following up with some very helpful tips.

What It Has…

Castro is wonderfully independent in her assessment of things. She’ll tell you the shortcomings not only of Netscape and IE, but also of the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium). She helpfully points out when a feature is available in one browser but not another, when it’s been deprecated in HTML 4 (that means the W3C doesn’t want you to use it), when it will increase the load time of your pages, and even when it’s likely to annoy the people who visit your web pages!

There’s some fantastic discussion in here about how to make your web pages useful to the largest number of people. She includes statistics as to what percentage of web surfers use what sort of browser or monitor and how this should affect what you do. She’ll even tell you the maximum total size of graphics files to use on your web pages if you expect that any of your viewers will be using a 14.4 modem! There’s a handy table in the back in case you forget which features are usable when and which you shouldn’t be using any more.

Castro isn’t afraid to tell you why and why not in addition to how. Yet she doesn’t let her preferences rule her writing – she’ll tell you how to do it some other way than hers, and just explain that you’ll be shutting out a certain portion of your audience by doing it that way. There are even a bunch of tiny little helpful hints toward the beginning – things to help make your pages easy to reach and read. She’ll even tell you the correct nested list type order according to the Chicago Manual of Style. If all that wasn’t enough, she has a publicly available web site with the code for all of the examples in the book, additional material, question and answer forums, and more.

…And What It Doesn’t Have

This book is an introduction to HTML 4, not php, cgi, perl, javascript, and so on, which you’ll need if you want to play with spiffy things like custom forms. Castro will tell you a bit about how to integrate these items into your HTML, and often will tell you where to find more information, but she won’t go into detail on these subjects. Databases aren’t covered at all. So you won’t be able to imitate the huge, fancy commercial sites when you’re done with this book, but you will have a much better handle on the basics.

While the book goes into a little detail about some software for Windows and the Mac (particularly for image work and HTML generation), you’ll almost never find Unix or Linux mentioned. I occasionally found this slightly frustrating as I work on Linux, but it wasn’t a huge hindrance. Again, I occasionally felt that I needed more context for the things I was being taught to do. On the other hand, I knew this was a subject I couldn’t learn in a single book, so I’m not so unhappy with that. It will make a fabulous quick-reference book once I read a few more detailed books to supplement it.

This book does exactly what it claims to do: provides a “Visual QuickStart” to HTML 4. It even does it complete with a treatment of all the sticky issues involved, rather than just teaching you the code and leaving you to hang yourself in the wide world of web design. I’ve learned that small things can make a lot of difference, and I’ve parlayed that into improving a couple of my web pages already, bit by bit, without cluttering them up with unnecessary huge graphics and frobbies.

So if you aren’t completely computer-shy but still don’t know the basics of style sheets or page layout, give this book a try. I think you’ll enjoy Castro’s at-times snarky sense of humor and her patient willingness to help, as well as her straightforward approach to the issues involved. It isn’t the only HTML book you’ll ever need – but then any book that tells you it is, is lying.

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