"PERL and CGI for the World Wide Web, Visual QuickStart Guide, Second Edition," Elizabeth Castro

Pros: Plenty of good, solid, basic concepts
Cons: Didn’t come out of the book feeling like I could do much with what I’d learned
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 12/19/2001

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.

I love Peachpit Press’ “Visual QuickStart Guides.” They’re fantastic for people who are getting into technical areas but have no background with it yet. They’re great for real beginners who are teaching themselves. (For context, “beginner” definitely describes me when it comes to programming languages of any kind.) Because they’re designed to be introductions, however, they don’t get into the depths of their subjects. They’re not meant to be your one and only resource on a subject – just an introduction to get you feeling comfortable before you dive into deeper waters.

Did I mention that I really love them? I have one for HTML 4, another for Perl and CGI, a third for Python, a fourth for PHP, and a fifth for JavaScript, even though I don’t think I’ll be using that last one much.

I gave the HTML 4 QuickStart Guide by Elizabeth Castro a solid 4 stars, as I recall. Ms. Castro is clear and easy to understand, and she obviously knows her subject. So I was more than happy to buy her “PERL and CGI” book. Most of what I need to do is web-based work, so I was particularly looking forward to her web-oriented approach to things.

Unfortunately I came out of this book feeling not much better off than when I went in. Oh, sure, I learned a lot of basic programming terms and concepts, like operators and functions, variables, arrays and hashes, simple operations with scalars, conditionals and loops, subroutines, formatting and printing, files and directories, and other such things. But I didn’t come out of it feeling like I could really do anything useful with what I’d learned. I didn’t feel like I could sit down and put together a Perl script that would solve any of my problems.

Maybe It’s Just Perl…

Maybe it’s just Perl; maybe it’s just too complex a subject for an introductory book to really get you up and started. Maybe I was hoping for too much. After all, the Python and PHP books made me feel a little more knowledgeable about their subjects. And having read Castro’s HTML 4 book, I don’t think that she lacks for writing ability or the ability to communicate ideas to beginners. So maybe it’s just the subject. Perhaps there are some things that Visual QuickStart Guides can’t take care of.

At least Ms. Castro does cover some really practical subjects along the way, though, so you’ll have some idea of what to watch out for. For example, she addresses various security issues that you’ll need to keep an eye on. She also has a very useful appendix on debugging, and one on using other programmers’ scripts. She’ll also point you to other resources on CGI and Perl.

I commented to a programmer I know that after reading the VQS PHP book I have, I felt like I could do useful things directly applicable to real-world concerns. After the VQS Python book, I felt like I at least understood how the things in it could be applied to useful programs. After reading the Perl book, however, I felt like I knew how to make useless little web widgets that meant absolutely nothing. He replied that Perl is complex enough that a short, introductory book really couldn’t get all that far with it.

So…

If all you want is the very basics, something to help you get your toes wet, then this is the right book. If you want something that’ll leave you feeling vaguely competent, I think that Perl simply demands a larger, more complex book than you’ll get out of a VQS Guide. At the very least though, this book makes a great reference work while you’re getting familiar with the basics.

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