"HTML Complete, Second Edition," Sybex

Pros: Good reference and refresher work
Cons: Audience problems (says all levels, but not good for beginners)
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 10/25/2000

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.

Let’s dive straight into the first glaring problem this book has: it can’t make up its mind who it’s for. The back says “all levels,” and the intro says it’s useful for beginners, intermediate users, and advanced users (for the latter, they recommend the book as a reference).

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately not. Instead of ending up with a book that is useful to all levels, they ended up with a book that has some chapters useful for beginners, and some chapters useful to advanced users. This isn’t in the sense that once you’ve gotten familiar with HTML and feel it’s time to move on you can read the chapter on JavaScript and learn something new. This is in the sense that some chapters are aimed at “normal people” (non-programmers), and others will read like a totally foreign language to anyone who isn’t a programmer or an academician (the XML chapter is one of the worst offenders here). Somehow I don’t think that’s what they had in mind when they said the book was useful to “all levels.”

“Overview” or “Introduction” vs. Grab-Bag Effect

At first glance this looked like the perfect book for me – I wanted something that would get in-depth into HTML, and then give me an overview on how complementary technologies worked and what they could do. Basically, something that would help me figure out which other things I should buy books on and learn. After all, it’s clear that a book like this isn’t going to teach you JavaScript in one chapter, so it should also be clear that they’re better off helping you figure out whether you should study something more than trying to teach you a new language. But unfortunately, teach you the basics of a new language is exactly what some of these chapters try to do.

Some of them do it without much context, too. So you still don’t know whether you should be learning JavaScript in order to do what you want to do. You still don’t really know the specifics of what it can do for you. All you know are a few aspects of the language that you’re just going to have to read about all over again anyway if you decide to learn the language.

Luckily not all of the “introduction” chapters do this sort of thing, but the ones that do are pretty well useless. Happily, you will learn some useful things about CGI, XHTML, and one or two other things.

What You’ll Find in This Book

You’ll find most of the basic HTML here, including a fantastic chapter on navigation and site design, a great chapter on linking, a reasonably explanatory section on CGI and Perl, a fabulous appendix including all of the HTML tags with various bits of useful information (including examples!), a color chart that makes it easier to choose browser-safe colors that are close to what you were looking for, and a huge index. You’ll even find out how to make your HTML XHTML-compatible so that you won’t run into problems later on.

This book goes into more detail than some of the introductory ones; for example, I have a better understanding of cascading style sheets than I did before. But it still leaves things out – various properties and values were inadequately explained, leaving me still with no idea what to do with them. (Why waste space mentioning them if you aren’t going to explain them?)

One major advantage this book has is that it takes UNIX users into account as least as much as Microsoft and Mac users. This is a definite plus to some of us!

Quality of the Writing

Because most of these chapters were written by different authors, there’s a large disparity in the quality from chapter to chapter. Some chapters are amusing and useful and entertaining, such as the chapter on site design and navigation. Plenty of helpful hints are interspersed with some of the funniest banter you’ve seen in a technical book in a while:

This home page is stunning. Not stunning as in “stunningly beautiful,”
but stunning as in “I’ve just been poked by a stun gun, and I’m in a lot
of freaking pain.”

I’d call it hands-down the most useful chapter in the book, and of course it’s hard not to respect any author who has the guts to make fun of his own old web page. Unfortunately some of the other chapters are dry enough to make your eyes glaze over and skip entire pages that you’d really rather not miss (the tables chapter comes to mind).

Lack of Context

There are things that just aren’t adequately covered in some chapters. For example, you find out about different formatting tags that seem to do the same thing (address, i, em) on page 17, but you don’t find out what actually makes them different (or not) until page 252. Often there just isn’t enough context for what you’re learning – early on you’re told about the width and height attributes for images, but not until 353 are you told what effect they have on the download of a web page. In the chapter on “layout technology” I found there sometimes wasn’t enough explanation of what was going on in the examples.

So if you’re only reading the chapters that you think you need in order to do what you need to do, you might be missing important information to help you decide what to do. For these and other reasons, this book might work better as a refresher or reference work, or as a more in-depth continuation from a simpler HTML book, than as a beginner’s manual.

A Word about New Technologies

As most people who have been playing around with HTML are aware by now, you run into problems whenever you start playing with new web page technologies – lots of stuff just isn’t compatible with old browsers, or doesn’t work well on text-only browsers, or sucks if your user is on a slow connection or has JavaScript turned off, and so on. You’ll lose large parts of your audience if you play with it.

Some parts of this book are very good at explaining when this is problematic; some very much aren’t. There are a couple of chapters on optimizing your web pages for IE5 and Netscape 4. How do they recommend that you do this? By inserting JavaScript into your page to see which browser someone is using and direct them to the right page.

There are just so many reasons why this is a bad idea, the least of which involve browsers that can’t handle JavaScript, users who have it turned off, non-standard browsers, browsers that are mis-reporting, and so on. So I wouldn’t recommend reading this book unless you have at least something of a handle on the issues already – what’s likely to cause browser problems, what’s going to irritate your users, and so on.

Also, some of their authors’ predictions just haven’t panned out that way, particularly in the XML chapter. That chapter makes some pretty grandiose claims about XML’s future, many of which I understand just haven’t worked out to be true. So beware of taking their claims at face value.

Again, all of this this makes “HTML Complete” less valuable as a beginner’s resource and more valuable as a refresher and reference work. Some of the supposed “overview” or “introductory” chapters aren’t going to be very useful to someone who doesn’t already have a bit of a grasp of programming. In short, ignore that bit about “all levels.” It isn’t really true.

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