Sierra & Bates. Head First Java 2nd Ed. (Review)


After the comments on the last post about relying more heavily on Java textbooks, I ordered the most popular ones from Amazon. I’ll start the reviews with the number one most popular book on Java (ranked by Amazon sales; it also has 269 reviews; I’m happy to see Effective Java is number 4):

  • Sierra, Kathy and Bert Bates. 2005. Head First Java. 2nd Edition. O’Reilly.

Mashup: Elementary School Workbook + Kitschy Humor

Image from Title Page.

I grew up with texts like The Little LISPer, but this book’s even stranger. It strikes me as a mashup of an elementary school math problem workbook and one of those cutesy humor books you see near the checkout counters of bookstores around the holidays.

Here’s an example of one of their quizzes, where you fill in missing pieces of a Java program; just like school writing exercises:

The Design and Layout

I think they were striving for a sense of the enthusiastic amateur. The “fun” fonts and askew alignments make it look non-linear. Code comments are added in a handwritten post-it note style.

You really need to head over to Amazon and “look inside”.

Who’s it For?

It’s aimed at Java novices. Other than that, I’m not sure. Maybe for potential Java developers who like crossword puzzles or true/false quizzes with titles like “Be the Compiler”. I’m more of a Java Puzzlers guy myself (thank my other childhood friend, Martin Gardner).

Unless you laughed at the photo included above, don’t buy it for the humor.

How Much Does it Cover?

It covers a startling amount of Java, including advanced topics like threads, sockets, RMI, Swing, audio, …

Of course, there can’t be much depth given this range. But you do get a wide range of hello-world-type programs.

Image from Page 101.

Is it Sound Java?

The authors clearly know what they’re doing. The advice and coverage are too basic if you want to program Java seriously, but it’ll get you started on the right track.

There’s even good high-level advice like telling you to write unit tests (though not using anything as complex as JUnit).

It’s an Industry

Like other popular series (i.e., …for Dummies, … in Action, … in a Nutshell), this one’s turned into an industry, with dozens of titles covering everything from HTML to statistics.

As such, they’ve created all the trappings of such an enterprise, such as “Head First learning principles”:

  • make it visual — put the words within or near graphics
  • use a conversational and personalized style
  • get the learner to think more deeply
  • get — and keep — the reader’s attention
  • touch their emotions

And they break out all sorts of “metacognitive” tips explaining why they wrote such a whacky book and how you should go about learning with it (like read it before bed and mix right-brain/left-brain activities for learning).

Many reviewers like the approach well enough to blurb about it.

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