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Head First JavaScript 76

stoolpigeon writes "Head First JavaScript is one of the latest entries in O'Reillys Head First series. Like the other Head First books, it takes a somewhat unique approach in conveying information. The stated intent of the series is to help readers learn and retain material by formatting it in a manner that assists in meeting those goals. This means that the book is full of graphics, exercises and humor. There is also a refreshing note on who will benefit from the book. I've pretty much always thought of these sections in books as entertaining, in that I get to see what new way a publisher has found to say, "Everyone should buy this book!". Head First Javascript actually does a decent job of describing who this book will help, and who it will not help. That alone had me intrigued right from the start." Read on for the rest of JR's review.
Head First JavaScript
author Michael Morrison
pages 615
publisher O'Reilly Media Inc.
rating 9/10
reviewer JR Peck
ISBN 0-596-52774-8
summary A Brain-Friendly Guide
Who is this book for? It is for someone looking to learn JavaScript, with access to a computer and a desire to learn the material through writing code and working through a variety of written exercises. The book begins with the very basics of scripting and as it states, is probably not going to be enjoyed by an experienced programmer who is looking for a JavaScript reference guide. There is a lot of white space, drawings, pictures and opportunities to do the exercises I mentioned as well as the answers to those exercises. For the experienced coder just looking for an api or methods and properties, this will probably feel like a bloated waste of time.

Someone like me on the other hand, who would like to take a JavaScript class but just doesn't have the time, this book was just what I needed. I have done some programming, so I did breeze through some portions of the book, but in others I didn't mind the review. I like having new information and ideas soak in over time. This book is paced just for that kind of learning. It is possible though for someone to be too new to the topic. Some understanding of html and css would really be helpful. Someone who doesn't have at least an idea of how those technologies work may struggle a bit. Though I would think a little time with google would provide everything necessary to be up to speed.

There is an 8 page introduction that explains the reasoning and methods behind the books approach. The "Read Me" portion gives some great insight into just what this book is like. It begins, "This is a learning experience, not a reference book." and follows that up with seven main points. To summarize them, the book teaches what someone needs to know to get up and running. It is not exhaustive, it does not go over the history of the language. There are many finer points not addressed. Using multiple browsers would be helpful to the reader working through the book. Skipping activities will greatly reduce the value of the experience. There is quite a bit of redundancy, it is on purpose and beneficial. The examples are as slim as possible to focus on what matters and finally, not all exercises have definitive answers. If any of that turns your stomach, this really may not be for you.

The format does pretty much make reading straight through the book without working the exercises a waste of time. This was my biggest challenge with the book. If I wanted to read it I needed a pencil, my laptop, free time and somewhere I could work through at least a whole exercise at a time. This wasn't something I could fit in 20 minutes a night before bed. The authors recommend making it the last thing read before bed, but the end of my days are too busy to fit an exercise in. I found that a lunch hour, or a quiet week-end afternoon were my best opportunities for learning.

When I found those times, the book was thoroughly enjoyable. The humor was corny at times but almost always funny. I even chuckled out loud more than once. The exercises are widely varied as are the interspersed scenarios and stories that accompany the examples. I downloaded the necessary images for examples from the books web site though I avoided using downloaded code. It caused more errors due to typos, but I felt like I did better typing in the examples myself. I enjoyed working the cross-word puzzles and reading the 'interviews' with various pieces of technology. The time invested was much greater than for any other tech book covering similar ground, but I felt like the return justified the added time.

The style and humor reminded me quite a bit of the Dietel and Dietel How to Program books. I think that the scope is similar as well, as far as beginning from the very basics and building with each chapter. Head First starts with a basic description of just what JavaScript is and what it adds in the form of interactivity and finishes with a chapter that gives a good introduction to Ajax. In between the reader learns about all the basics like variables, looping, user input, validation, control flow, functions, code reuse, objects, etc.

As a hobbyist I felt like this was a great introduction to JavaScript. I think it gave me a foundation to build on and the ability to use more of the materials freely available on the web. Sometimes there is just so much of that out there, that it is difficult to know where to start. One of my primary goals in reading this book was to put together a couple simple web apps for myself as well as to get a better understanding of using the DOM for some Firefox plugins I would like to write. This book met those needs.

I think it is good to mention though, one last time, this is not a no-nonsense reference manual. In fact there is lots of non-sense and it is actually quite a bit of fun. But if the idea of 2 or 3 pages of big pictures to get across a couple simple ideas about data types bothers you, don't spend the money on this book. It will just annoy you and you will probably feel ripped off. On the other hand, if you've picked up hefty programming manuals and found that you didn't make it a quarter of the way through, and didn't remember much of the quarter you did finish, this approach may be much more friendly and give you a taste of success. And what good is a more information dense book if you don't read it or learn from it?

The table of contents gives a short summary of each chapter and a breakdown by section. The section titles are good for finding a place you read or stopped but wont always help find a topic. They are often named with the name of the exercise, not the subject they address. The index is good though and will help quickly track down topics. Like many new O'Reilly books, this one comes with 45 days free access to the electronic version of the book on Safari. The books site, linked above, has the table of contents, index, code examples and the complete second chapter available for viewing and/or download.

You can purchase Head First JavaScript from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Head First JavaScript

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  • HEAD FIRST! APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE ow! OW! Why are you all throwing things at me?
  • Not a fan (Score:2, Interesting)

    of the Head First books. I tried Head First Java, and Head First OO Analysis & Design. I found them so silly they distracted me from learning the material. Give me a concise, dry book like K & R... or for JavaScript, the "Definitive Guide" any day.
    • Re:Not a fan (Score:4, Insightful)

      by moranar ( 632206 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @01:06PM (#22870968) Homepage Journal
      Why try two of them? It's not like the style differs from one to the other. Plus, it's clearly stated in the first pages what the style will be (or you can infer it from the text anyway), and that the books are not meant as references like "Javascript, the definitive guide" is.

      Seeing how every O'Reilly book has a free chapter for download at the website, I don't think there's any excuse to feel ripped off, even when buying from a digital store, where it is harder to check the book (not that I imply this is your case).
    • Re:Not a fan (Score:4, Insightful)

      by DaveV1.0 ( 203135 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @01:16PM (#22871078) Journal
      Different strokes for different folks.

      This is why I always advise people looking for a book on a computer topic to pick up two or three from different publishers and read a little bit of each one. That way they get a feel for the tone of the book and can choose the one that fits best with them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by CRCulver ( 715279 )

      I agree. All the whizbang graphics and jokes in the Head First books don't translate to more efficient learning. The most friendly language tutorial I've ever seen is Mark Pilgrim's Dive into Python [] , which with its simple typesetting initially seems dull as dishwater, but which is excellently worded and combines friendliness with rigour. A pity O'Reilly never commissioned Pilgim to come abroad and write more resources for developers.

    • I haven't tried the "Head First" books, but the concept sounds a lot like the "Dummies" books, which I really didn't like. There is a fine balance between being friendly & approachable and taking far too long to finally get to the point. I always thought the "Dummies" books were on the "too long to get to the point" end of the spectrum, and therefore usually picked the "Sams Teach 24 Hours" books, instead.

      How do the "Head First
      • by chromatic ( 9471 )

        How do the "Head First" books compare to the "Dummies" and "Tech Yourself" books?

        Head First books tend to be technically accurate.

      • The Dummies books breaks the information into tiny chunks and feeds it to you at a sixth grade reading level, give or take. There are graphics and pictures, but they're almost all simple illustrations of concepts.

        Head First tries to make things interesting by using funnier images, plays on words, puns, and pop culture references (mainstream stuff, not obscure) to get your attention. Every few pages they also include a creative quiz or simple programming exercise to test your knowledge. The examples ar
    • I wish there was something in the middle. I agree that the head first books are a bit over the top. But they seem to be accurate. On the other hand, I can't stay awake for more than 10 or 15 minutes when I read something like, say, the gang of four book. It's like having Henry Kissinger as a professor when you have a hangover and two hours of sleep.
    • by kaens ( 639772 )
      I agree. I used to turn to books like the sams "Teach yourself" series, or spend time on a language tutorial on the web, but nowadays I just want a good reference material. I don't need chapters explaining what variables are or what loops are anymore - I need a language reference, and I don't really want any fluff in it.

      The exception is when the language is outside of the "normal" programming paradigms, or really syntactically different, in which case I probably want a more gentle introduction.
    • by gmiley ( 975720 )
      I would tend to agree, the "Definitive Guide" DHTML reference manual is one of my favorite and most used books in my collection for doing just about any client-side web programming. If I could find a book like that for every programming language I would own them all. Although those manuals are not for everyone, since I have turned some people I work with on to that one, they too use it constantly and swear by it just as much as I do.
  • Doing a course on design patterns last semester we were directed to the Head First Design Pattern books. I refused to open it as a matter of principle so I can't vouch for the quality. It's just impossible to concentrate with all that noise on the page.

    Instead I went straight for the G.O.F. book (the canonical book for design patterns) 'and never looked back'. I don't think I could have got that kind of understanding with cartoons and colour.

    I would really like to know who reads these?
    • I guess it's kind of like that little windows XP search dog, and clippy. It doesn't really make the product work less well, but it's kind of demeaning to have a little cartoon character pop up and guide you through the process.
      • I guess it's kind of like that little windows XP search dog, and clippy. It doesn't really make the product work less well, but it's kind of demeaning to have a little cartoon character pop up and guide you through the process.
        I'm not the first to mention this, but what makes it really bad is the fact that you tick the box saying "No, I don't want that ******* animated dog", and to mark this choice they show an animation of him running off anyway!
    • by Mongoose Disciple ( 722373 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @01:16PM (#22871094)
      I actually mostly like the Head First Design patterns book. There is a lot of noise there, but they do a pretty good job of explaining the patterns and illustrating cases in which you'd want to use them. Most of the developers I've worked with could benefit from it -- the only thing worse than a developer with no exposure to design patterns is one for whom a small selection of patterns is a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

      I have the Gang of Four book also as a reference manual, but it is just that. I would say that trying to read it straight through, to me, is like trying to read a dictionary, except I honestly consider a good dictionary to be much more approachable. It's a book I have handy because it's the definitive work, not because it's easy to read or the best way to learn the concepts.
      • don't buy it (Score:3, Insightful)

        by acidrain ( 35064 )
        I have a copy of the previous version of this book and as a senior engineer I found it terrible. It's targeted at people who need to be coddled into thinking about simple technical things, and that coddling (read: stupid jokes and silly pictures) just gets really annoying when you are actually in the mood to read useful information. The JavaScript "nutshell" book is an amazing reference however, in that it gets right to the point and doesn't gloss over useful details. It is hard to believe they were prin
        • But you're a senior engineer, the book isn't targetted at you. I've worked with people who are totally new to programming and the Head First books are great for them to get started with and then you buy them one of the dry (and frankly dull) Nutshell books that are great once you know what you're doing.
    • by mysqlrocks ( 783488 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @01:22PM (#22871162) Homepage Journal

      Doing a course on design patterns last semester we were directed to the Head First Design Pattern books. I refused to open it as a matter of principle so I can't vouch for the quality. It's just impossible to concentrate with all that noise on the page.

      I used the HFDP book to teach a class on design patterns and it was a great resource. I'd recommend it over a dry text book any day. My take is that most people who dismiss the HF books are intellectual snobs who think if learning isn't painful it means you're not learning. The HF books are based on solid learning principles and, IMHO, they work.

      • I'd be the first to agree that it is partly intellectual snobbery. But *only* partly.

        As an educator you know about 'learning styles' (or whatever they're calling it this week). I wouldn't hand in a piece of work with pictures of dolphins swimming through the paragraphs, every fourth word in blue, and with the first line of every paragraph highlighted except for vowels. Partly because it would be tricky in LaTeX but mainly because it would be impossible to read and detract from the content (at least, to my e
      • by edalytical ( 671270 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @02:26PM (#22871988)
        AFAIK, the HF Java book is used for the Data Structures course a UC Berkeley. If it's good enough for Cal students, it should be good enough for anyone.
      • by kaens ( 639772 )
        My take is that most people who dismiss the HF books are intellectual snobs who think if learning isn't painful it means you're not learning.

        That may be true for some, but I'd suspect that most of the people that dismiss the HF books are people who are already fairly familiar with the software engineering / computer science / programming domain.

        Personally, I haven't read any of them, but I suspect that I would get a lot less out of them than a reference material at this point. 5 years ago, this would b
  • Maybe I'm wierd (Score:4, Insightful)

    by scubamage ( 727538 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @01:05PM (#22870954)
    I love the head start books from a purely learning perspective. I've reccomended Head First Java and Head First Design Patterns to at least 5 people so far who are just getting their feet wet with programming, and if this book runs along a similar vein I can imagine it makes a great FIRST book. Obviously these aren't good reference books, but they make it easy and pretty fast to get the basic material across for people who don't like the lack of personality in traditional "Learning XXXXX" books. I may have to check this out.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by crosstalk ( 78439 )
      I like the HF books as well, Even the head Rush books have been good. The head rush ajax book was very well written. and helped show how some of the basics worked. The cartoons and color and everything kept me interested. In my team here we use them pretty heavily, as there is no formal education here.
    • Well, if you're wierd, then I must be too! I got the Headfirst Javascript book; and then because I learned well from it, I went out and bought the Java book too. They must just both suit my sense of humour, and preferred learning style. As acomparison, I've looked at some of the 'For dummies' books in the past, and chucked them out, 'cos they were just crap,and had so much waffle in them, that you didn't actually learn anything, the HF books are different,as is only to be expected from O'Reilly.
  • This means that the book is full of graphics, exercises and humor.
    Is this anything like A Fortran Coloring Book [] by Kaufman?
  • I tried reading the Head First book on Design Patterns due to a friend's suggestion a while back. I'll have to admit that the first couple chapters tend to unfold pretty well. They present the information in a way that doesn't make any assumptions and is quite accessible to someone new to the material.

    However, once you "get it", the style becomes increasingly tiresome. After a while you just want the damn information, not some cartoony scenario that dances around the issue before *finally* getting to the
  • I used the HeadFirst HTML book a couple years ago, and found it very helpful. I think and learn visually, so the pictures etc., helped me learn and retain the concepts. However, the index was a big problem, and O'Reilly's disclaimer about the index and references should be taken with a grain of salt. Well learned concepts don't write much functioning code. A good index is necessary to get back to that concept page and look at the syntax, etc. The HTML book caused me to waste a lot of time (leafing thro
  • I found the "Head First" series to be a bit of a bore. I read half the one on design patterns (borowed it from a co-worker) and thought it a little "silly". This method of learning may be just what some people need. Other's (most?) would want something more traditional.

    I really applaud the effort and like to see new modes of learning experimented with, however.
  • by Toreo asesino ( 951231 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @02:05PM (#22871722) Journal
    For those looking to shorten their life-span due to stress; program in JavaScript over HTTPS with URL rewriting.

    Satan would be proud.
  • Damned Safari. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @02:07PM (#22871744) Journal
    I'll gladly pay as much for a simple, un-DRM'd PDF as I would for a physical book.

    What I don't like is this 45 days free access to some HTML/Javascript monstrosity intended to allow you to read the book (in a standard web browser, no less) without downloading it. And then they have the gall to offer you PDF downloads of a few chapters every month you're subscribed -- yeah, I'll finish the book in less than a month, so that's way too slow, and the single gigantic PDF I pirated was easier to manage and search through.

    I'll take the Pragmatic Programmer approach over this any day...

    Here's how it works instead, now: The company buys the book, often a hardcopy if there's no decent electronic version. Then we go out and find a PDF version to pirate and share on the local network. It's a small company; it's not as if all of us are going to be trying to read the book at once, but it's much better to simply search through a PDF than to have to go read the index...
    • What I don't like is this 45 days free access to some HTML/Javascript monstrosity intended to allow you to read the book (in a standard web browser, no less) without downloading it. And then they have the gall to offer you PDF downloads of a few chapters every month you're subscribed -- yeah, I'll finish the book in less than a month, so that's way too slow, and the single gigantic PDF I pirated was easier to manage and search through.

      My company got me a safari subscription, and I must say I've been really
      • Actually, you can copy the text from some books to paste elsewhere. There's a toggle at the top between Fidelity View and HTML View. For the books that allow HTML view, you can highlight and copy the text in that mode.
      • You forgot "Requires Internet access, all the time."

        And while searching through all books might be nice, I generally know which book I want to be looking in, if Google isn't helping. And within one PDF, KPDF's search, at least, is far better than Safari's.
  • I found it helpful (Score:4, Informative)

    by Nerdposeur ( 910128 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2008 @02:16PM (#22871864) Journal

    I have also read (most of) Head First Javascript, and at the beginning of it, I fit the description of their ideal reader: knowledge of HTML and CSS, no programming experience.

    I bought Headfirst JS at the same time as O'Reilly's "JavaScript: The Definitive Guide," which I've hardly cracked due to its dull style and assumption that the reader is already familiar with other languages. The difference between the two for a beginner is night and day - although of course they serve different purposes.

    The way they explain things may seem childish at first, but it makes things memorable, and the times when I did the "busy work" of filling out crosswords of terms and penciling in missing code in examples were the times I learned the most.

    For example, in explaining data types, they have you circle items in a drawing of a city street and tell what kind of data type would represent them: boolean for a car's blinker, string for the title of a shop, number for a 3-way traffic light. The concept of data types had not been clear to me in The Definitive Guide, so I appreciated HFJS's approach of representing real-life information as data types.

    A few concepts seemed unclear at first - like the difference between writing a function and actually calling it - but overall this is a very helpful introduction to Javascript, and fairly painless to read. Once you get the basics, other books would be better for reference.

    • I bought Headfirst JS at the same time as O'Reilly's "JavaScript: The Definitive Guide," which I've hardly cracked due to its dull style and assumption that the reader is already familiar with other languages. ...snip... Once you get the basics, other books [than Head First Javascript] would be better for reference.

      You're going to be really glad you bought that Definitive Guide in a year or two. It's (IMHO) the best reference for javascript out there.

      I recommend reading up on the work of Douglas Crockford [] and John Resig [] when you want to get into more advanced javascript.

      • by siDDis ( 961791 )
        You're absolutely right! I have both books and the HF Javascript book is great for the beginner, and once you're done with it the The Definitive Guide is just a fantastic book to evolve your skills with. I would also recommend a third book called Pro Javascript Techniques by John Resig which is an exellent book for when your JS application becomes several kilobytes and you need some structure. Object Oriented Javascript is great ;)
        • Yeah, I read Pro Javascript Techniques as well. There's nothing in it that you can't find on the web, which is I why usually don't recommend it, but it definitely has a lot a valuable information and practical examples for folks who prefer to have a physical book.
          • by siDDis ( 961791 )
            The thing I like about books is that you sometimes come over topics about stuff you never thought about. For example the Pro Javascript Techniques book has a chapter about Canvas/Graphics programming in Javascript. I didn't know about that before I actually read about in that book :)

            It's pretty cool to be able to render graphics from javascript so you can keep the amount of requests loading a website to the minimum. I guess it's awesome for game programming in Javascript also :)
      • by kaens ( 639772 )
        Hell yes on all suggestions.

        Kids, if you know a few programming languages already, don't learn javascript from the web unless it's from Resig or Crockford. Buy the definitive guide (or pirate it if you can't afford it). Most of the web tutorials for javascript are really really bad.
  • I read "Head First Java" back in college and have been reading "Head First Design Patterns" here lately. They're some of the only books on programming that don't put me to sleep.
  • Javascript vs LISP? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I've heard Javascript is actually quite powerful and in some ways very LISP-like. In what way is Javascript LISPy? Anybody ever use it outside of a browser environment?

    • It supports the basic functional programming stuff- closures, for instance. You can define a function within a function, return it, then call it anonymously. Like such:

      function generateAdder(incr) {
      function add(oprand) {
      return incr + oprand;
      return add;
      alert(generateAdder(2)(3)); // Pops up "5"
      alert(generateAdder(20)(3)); // Pops up "23"
    • functions are objects, so you can pass them around, return them, create anonymous functions, etc.

      Firefox/Mozilla/SpiderMonkey have been adding functional Array functions (as have opera and safari).


      [1,2,3,4].map(function(x){ return x * x; }); --> [1,4,9,16]

      [1,2,3,4].filter(function(x){return x & 0x01 == 1 }); --> [1,3]

      (Of course, implementing themself for ie or older browsers can be done in ~4 lines of code).

    • It doesn't have Lisp-style macros, but it does have eval, lambda (a.k.a. function), map, etc. Functions are first-class values. Typing is dynamic, with optional static declarations and a variety of exciting scoping declarations. Closures work. Last I heard, call-with-current-continuation will not be available per se, but there will be a nice range of flow-control constructs. Maybe continuations and coroutines; not sure. History: Javascript was originally written by Lisp hackers.

      This review didn't specify w
  • Very well written, concise review. Bravo! One of the most well written and informative reviews I have seen on here. Kudos for speaking English well and being able to organize your thoughts ;)

    Bonus points for not summarizing each chapter and/or being redundant.
  • some Firefox plugins I would like to write

    It's extensions, dammit! Or add-ons. I'm tired of seeing people use the wrong term.

    • Kudos to you, sir. You pick your battles well.

      Now, for mis-spelling damnit, I'll have to take your eyes. You understand.
  • Javascript is truly complex when it comes to cross-browser compatibility and object management. The ambiguity of type in the syntax is also horrible, and the handful of built-in functions needed workarounds until recently (most notably date related functions).

    For the web I would avoid javascript wherever possible. If you want to do anything serious on the client use FLASH. If you want to pickup AJAX tricks then buy a book on the topic, not on JavaScript.

    If you feel the need to buy a book like this then you
    • > Javascript is truly complex when it comes to cross-browser
      > compatibility and object management.

      That's not Javascript's complexity, that's the DOM.

      {Java|ECMA}script is an elegant language that can implement just
      about any programming paradigm that you desire ( functional,
      OO, AO, procedural... ).

      ``Cross-browser compatibility'' has nothing whatsoever to do with
      the ECMAScript spec. Here I am, executing some commands in the
      see-shell interpreter. I see no complexity.
      • Obviously you are beyond the targeted skill level of this book if you are using javascript for shell scripts. I have heard good things about javascript for shell scripting, but that is not what this book is about, nor is it how most people are forced into javascript.

        To most people and most authors of books such as this, javascript equals client-side web programming. Just look at the cover of the book []. "Slicing and dicing HTML" is easier, simpler, and faster if done on the server. Those things usually matter

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire