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Unix Books Media Operating Systems Software Book Reviews

Unix in a Nutshell 39

Jason Bennett has sent us a review of one of the O'Reilly staples, UNIX in a Nutshell. Click below to read more.
UNIX in a Nutshell
author Daniel Gilly
publisher O'Reilly
rating 9/10
reviewer Jason Bennett
ISBN 1-56592-001-5
summary One of the most comprehensive UNIX handbooks on the market, and certainly one of the favorite. The ultimate reference, although not recommended for learning UNIX.


Greetings, all. This week I'll be "reviewing" one of the books that made the O'Reilly name, UNIX in a Nutshell, although I admit to feeling a little silly passing judgement on a book that has already been judged quite well by the community at large. The first edition of this book was published in December 1986, and has been a mainstay ever since. This particular version is dated June 1998, and professes to include typographical fixes and a new index. For reference, in December 1986 I was working on an IBM PCjr expanded to 640k of RAM and dual 360k floppy drives. My favorite games were Karateka, Flight Simulator II and F-15 Strike Eagle (the first one). How far we've come....

What's the book about?

Simply put, this book is a dictionary of UNIX. It lists every command available with a standard System V, Release 4 or Solaris 2.0 UNIX. This included everything from grep to ed to cc to troff. If you know a command exists, it's listed here along with all its options. That, however, is but a small part of the book. In addition, there are various specific sections covering shells (including sh, ksh and csh), EMACS, vi, ex, awk, sed, nroff/troff, mm/ms/me, various nroff/troff preprocessors, RCS/SCCS, make, sdb/dbx, plus a small beginner's list of important commands. In other words, this is the jack of all trades reference for UNIX (and by extension, the master of none, although I'll cover that later). There is also a transition guide (or at least a small blub) for those used to BSD instead of SysV (of which Linux is a decendent of the later). Many BSD commands included in /usr/ucb on Solaris are listed in the guide as well. In short, if it's standard UNIX (and then some), it's here.

What's Good?

If you want a kitchen-sink reference to UNIX, this is it. Any command that you have a question about is in here. Anytime you have a question about which vi command is needed, it's in here. Shell scripting is covered. Regular expressions are covered, for when you forget when to use "?" and when to use "*" (or "^" or "$"). Want a quick overview to RCS for your web files? It's right here. This is the short, short version of all your man pages that you can put under your pillow at night.

What's Bad?

If you don't know much or anything about UNIX, don't buy this book. Or at least buy an introductory one along with it. Trying to learn UNIX from this book is like trying to learn English by reading the dictionary. Not only is there not much context, you can't do a reverse lookup. If you can't guess at the command you want, you won't be able to find it. That's not necessarily a flaw, this book just wasn't designed to do that. You don't buy the OED for a Spanish speaker, and you don't buy UNIX in a Nutshell for a newbie. In addition, don't buy this book just for its EMACS or vi or RCS section. Those sections are nice, but they are more command lists than guides. O'Reilly has an excellent selection of books dedicated to helping you with one of the above programs. They're great, and I recommend them.

What's In It For Us?

Long-time UNIX fans will love this book, and probably already own a copy. Same with sysadmins. If you've been around enough to know what you're doing, but still have to look up commands, this is also a great book for you. I know I can never remember half the EMACS or vi commands when I need them. The community has voted, and this reference is it. If you need it, buy it.

Buy the book at Amazon.
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Unix in a Nutshell

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Man pages are too-kitchen sink for the clueful-newbie.

    Also, manpages aren't required in SysV (they're a BSD-ism) so you can't expect them in all systems, like embedded or vertical market machines.

    Hell, even GNU disses manpages in favor of "info"!
  • Posted by d106ene5:

    However, the point I was trying to make is that you simply cannot rely on man pages or info or whatever being accessible if you work on a variety of systems.

    Then what good is Unix In A Nutshell to you anyway? Of course manpages are not available on the Mac - in which case Unix In A Nutshell won't be of much use either.

    Tom's point is valid. On unix systems you should be able to find manpages.
  • by gavinhall ( 33 ) on Tuesday June 01, 1999 @06:00AM (#1872486)
    Posted by d106ene5:

    This book provides information that can almost entirely be derived from man pages. It adds very little to system documentation already in place (that any unix user should be comfortable using).
  • There is also a transition guide (or at least a small blub) for those used to BSD instead of SysV (of which Linux is a decendent of the later).

    Linux isn't a direct descendant of SysV at all; in fact, that's part of the point behind it. Also, while Linux may have SVr4-ish modules and init(8), the userland is BSDish/GNU all the way -- go to (say) Solaris from Linux or *BSD and the SysV-ness of it will bite you if you aren't ready for it, especially with commands like ps and the printing subsystem.

  • I disagree, at least for myself. I tend to find paper documentation to be easier to use than online versions. For one thing, books give me more space. If I'm trying to follow something from the online documentation, like the order of parameters to a given function, It's easier to have a book open on my desk than find a spot for an xterm where it doesn't obscure too much of the code. Books are also easier to skim. If I'm looking for information on a concept, and the index gives a range pages, I can scan through a book's pages faster than I can a manpage's screens.

    Maybe it's just that I'm more used to books, but I find written documentation to be easier to follow.

    --Phil (I should probably grab this book. I could get rid of my reams of printed manpages.)
  • I have both UNIX and Linux in a nutshell. My UNIX is dated August 1994.

    To be honest I've rarely used them. I usually find the installed man pages more up to date, and enjoy being able to search for a command option.

    But I have them nonetheless.
  • Normally, I'd just lurk around the book reviews but this kind of post annoys me and I think it's too important a topic to ignore.

    So let's pick it apart piece by piece

    I see no reason to review a book that's such a staple in the unix community such as this, and pass it off as being 'new' or 'unknown'..

    On the /. front page the article is described as a review of 'one of the O'Reilly staples'. In the first paragraph the author states he "feels silly" reviewing a book that has already been approved and used by so many. I hardly think that is passing the book off as new or unknown. I'm surprosed it has taken so long for this review to appear on /. I suspect one of the reasons for the review was because it hadn't been done yet. Why climb a mountain that's already been climbed before? Because it's there.

    I feel uneasy when commercials for books like this one start sneaking into the realm of 'actual interesting content'

    The 30 other posters (at time of writing) would seem to disagree. The review has prompted discussion on various topics: UNIX documentation, man pages vs books, ORA books vs others. To me this is pretty interesting content.

    There's a lot of money to be made by pointing at a very good book that a lot of nerds might be interested in, and convincing them to buy it through a money-making portal. At the same time, it's annoying to those of us who see it as a clear-cut way to make some money off of hard working geeks who may not know they're being led by the pied piper of geekyness -

    You poor bugger, you've obviously been tricked by Evil Rob and his henchmen before - don't tell me you bought the book about the ducks and you're pissed off because everyone's favourite website (malevolent as it is) got 3c of your hard earned dosh.

    Fortunately I have never been a victim of the dark Jedi incantation "Buy it at Amazon". Please give /. readers some credit - we aren't stupid. If we buy a book we buy it because we want it not because /. told us to.

    Rob, Jeff and co put up this site because it is a cool thing to do. They want to make it as cool as possible - which costs money. So they sell banner ads and join a couple of affiliates programs. It doesn't cost me a single cent. Nor anyone other /. reader.

    Posts that complain about the very necessary advertising and Amazon/CDNow links are ultimately a waste of time. Without the ads there would be no /. If you feel that strongly about them don't read /.

    OK, I'm done now

  • > This book provides information that can almost entirely be derived from man pages

    That's what a desktop reference is. The point is that each entry is boiled down to the most important details. It doesn't pretend to be complete documentation of everything. To take a random example, man ps on the HP box I'm sat in front of at the moment runs to 8 or 9 pages. The Unix in a Nutshell entry runs to 24 lines. Chances are I'll find what I want quicker in the book.

    This book travels with me to every job I go on - it's probably the best pure reference book I own. It's a top book and a bargain (even if, like me, you never have and probably never will use the nroff/troff section).
  • As the review points out, Linux adopts many conventions from SVR4, so I would recommend this 'Nutshell ...' over the Linux specific one.

    I also like the troff reference - don't laugh, I
    still use it for simple documents that can't justify full typesetting in LaTeX.

    Chris Wareham
  • Different unices have different versions of commands in them; under Solaris I use ps -Af to list processes; the nearest equivalent under linux is something like ps aux. man pages pertain directly to the OS you're reading them on. Books have to be generalised.

    And, as for learning C programming, once you know the basics, you can go far reading the man pages/RFC's. I'm currently working on a password changing daemon (called from inetd) and I'm learning most of it as I go along through the man pages and a little help from DejaNews [].

  • Hrm, maybe I should. The point still stands that different unices use different commands; some of the gnome installation scripts fail on Solaris unless GNU grep is installed; the book possibly wouldn't cover such a variation.
  • I agree with you there... the prices for these books are outrageous! It makes me wonder though who gets all the money from these ventures as most of the books this program finds on the web average about 40% off of list price. I suppose though that O'Reilly does set the list price but if these companies can still make a profit selling it for 40% of that something is definitely wrong.

    Nevertheless, O'Reilly does have a corner on the market as the leading distributor of technical books so I suppose they can abuse their monopoly like everyone else. Luckily we can exploit the competition between vendors using automated programs on the web and overcome the waste.
    Resume []
  • If you are more likely to have a book handy than the man pages. Personally, I am so I use this book a great deal but others may not.


    The book lists for a whopping $24.95 and if you get it from Amazon you only pay $19.96. Through the help of other /. readers I have a program on the web that found it for only $12.95 (48% OFF) from powells. If your interested the source code is available in a developers edition and you can find lowest price here:

    Unix in a Nutshell []

    The program speciallizes in O'Reillys but you can find any book. Each night I build a list of every O'Reilly and with one click you can find the cheapest price.
    Resume []

  • Except MY PCjr only had 512k of RAM and a single floppy, and you had to shuffle disks back and forth. Ah, good old proprietary IBM. When was the last time you saw a computer with a cartridge slot? You know, I think I still have GW-BASIC on a cartridge sitting around somewhere.

    Sorry... Off-topic, but I couldn't resist.
  • I remember buying this book when I went back to school in 91. Contrary to the review, I did teach myself Unix from this book. (Although I probably had some *nix background from my VAX account when I first went to university back in the 80s.) None of the kids (that I met) coming out of high school had a clue what they could do with a shell account. Gopher, LYNX, PINE, the good old days. I lent that book to everyone from Comp. Eng. friends to cute girls in Psych. Sadly, I lost track of it. The company library has a copy, but I am thinking I may get a copy for nostalgias sake.

  • I'm sure there is some cognitive science to explain this, but when I am trying hard to understand something I need to see it on paper. Even on a large monitor, man pages become a blur to me about 2 pages down. The only way I can get things through my thick skull somtimes is
    to walk away from the computer and sit down with a book. (Be it *nix or hydraulic design)
    Another advantage of the paper version is you can scribble notes in the margin.
  • >am i alone in thinking that one of the prime uses of a palm pilot is computing whilst on the kludgie?

    Yes, but they can't help if you're too late in noticing that there's no bog roll (well, maybe you could order some online). Books conveniently have a couple of blank/useless pages you can use. Perhaps this could be used as a measure of quality: emergency page count - typically low in O'Reilly books, higher for the WinNT Resource Kit...
  • Agreed.

    It's a big, fat, reassuring book, and it resists coffee stains nicely. I have a copy at work, and due to strange circumstances, we have two copies at home.

    Even if you don't ever need to dip into, it's nice to know it's there, just in case. Possibly my favorite of all the ORA books so far (OK, so you might argue that the Bat Book is more of a lifesaver, but it just scares me).

  • by Asim ( 20552 ) on Tuesday June 01, 1999 @06:20AM (#1872502) Homepage
    Very true, my friend. And inportant to point out, as any person new to Unix will no doubt miss the man pages initially. People need to know about all sources of information, and how to evaluate them for their own uses.
    And that is the point of this book, IMHO -- that the man pages are not always the most efficent way to find information on commands. A short list of the basic commands can be, in some situations, better to use that having the entire mass of documentation at hand. If one is a relative newbie to intermediate, who knows what s/he wants to do, but not where to find it, it can be more helpful to look in a book than to look in man pages.
    For example, I use 4 books when creating Perl programs here at work; _Programming Perl_, Dave Roth's WinNT Perl book, _Perl in a Nutshell_, and _Perl Cookbook_. Of those, I'd say I use _Perl in a Nutshell_ more than the others. Although all of the infomation is in my online docs, it's simpler and quicker for me to look in the book than to trample through the online docs _if_ it is a simple and direct question. I use more in-depth information when I need to know details.
    And, best of all, you can read it on the toliet, and learn yourelf something there. :)
    Open Source, in general, is about choices. And this book is simply another choice.
  • I have to add myself to the list of people who did indeed learn basic Unix mostly from this book. In 1993 or so, this was my first Unix book, and it made a nice replacement for the pages of hand-written crib notes I had been using to teach myself to use the various shell commands.

    I tend to think of this book as "man pages lite" - if you have and know how to use the real thing, this book will probably just gather dust on your shelf, but if you don't have good man pages, or are new enough to be daunted by their presence, this book can be a good reference to flip through in search of commonly used bits of info. While there is no "reverse lookup" per se, the text is light enough that there's a lot to be learned just by casual browsing.

    Of course, while this book will teach you Unix commands, it will do very little to teach you Unix - there's very little talk of things like the theories of pipes, job control, the architecture of the filesystem, etc. other than what can be gleaned from the relevant commands - but this isn't the same thing as a discussion of how and why things work.

    Also, as others have mentioned, there *are* various flavors of this book (I think I've seen Linux in a Nutshell, Solaris in a Nutshell, and BSD in a Nutshell)...

  • Does anyone think it might make sense to use make SGML the new standard format for manpages? It seems to solve nearly all of the problems associated with both troff and texinfo.
    With SGML, you can write manpages to be displayed as hypertext (convert it to HTML) on multiple pages or one long page (for searching). You can convert it to TeX/LaTex for attractively printed documents. I think I've even seen a filter to which convert from SGML to troff for use in a normal man page (I don't know if anyone's written anything to convert troff to SGML).
    Is this the kind of thing that you'd need to submit to POSIX if you wanted it to be considered for a standard?
  • by _brute_ ( 27722 )
    I find Essential System Administration (also from ORA) is the absolute bomb.

    If your looking for a good UNIX reference that is a great book.

    its a great 'practical' reference and worth every penny.

    figured I would throw that out if your planning to buy a book on system administration to act as a UNIX reference this is definetly what you should get.
  • >And, best of all, you can read it on the toliet, and learn yourelf something there. :)

    am i alone in thinking that one of the prime uses of a palm pilot is computing whilst on the kludgie?

    with a palm vii, you too can be a sysadmin from the throne...
  • I didn't buy this book for a long time, for this very reason. If I needed to jog my memory, or look up an argument, then I'd use the man pages.

    But now I've started working from home. And I do a lot of my work on a Windows box. (There's some applications that are only available under Win32 that I just can't get around needing. It usually doesn't bother me too much since UNIX is just a telnet client away anyway.) So I spend a lot of my time telnetted into UNIX boxes over a dial-up connection. Which is a pain since searching through a few man entries, with a half dozen screens of text each, can be slow enough to be annoying.

    I used to get around this by just reaching over to the next keyboard, which is my home Linux box. But on a whim, and based off of my success with Java in a Nutshell [], I decided to pick up UNIX in a Nutshell. And I've used it more than I thought I would. Sometimes it's just handy to have a dead-tree version of the docs around. Screen real estate is just too valuable sometimes. If I'm in the middle of typing a long command line, sometimes it's easier to flip open a book to verify the parameter instead of opening a new telnet session or window to fire up man. I've even considered getting the UNIX CD Bookshelf [] in which UNIX in a Nutshell is included in both hard copy and electronic copy. I haven't, since UNIX in a nutshell is probably the most valuable reference book of the bunch, and I've already forked over my $20 to O'Reilly for that one.

    The bottom line: There's nothing groundbreaking about this book. All of the information is available elsewhere, and for free. Because of that, it's probably not an O'Reilly "gem". But if spend a decent amount of time in man, and you have 20 bucks (plus shipping) to spare, it's a well compiled reference that might be worthwhile to add to your library.

  • As opposed to "The Practice of Programming" previously reviewed, I see no reason to review a book that's such a staple in the unix community such as this, and pass it off as being 'new' or 'unknown'.. I search for a point to all of it, and basically the only thing I can come up with is credits for Slashdot and friends.

    I can deal with commercials when they're clearly commercials, but I feel uneasy when commercials for books like this one start sneaking into the realm of 'actual interesting content'

    There's a lot of money to be made by pointing at a very good book that a lot of nerds might be interested in, and convincing them to buy it through a money-making portal. At the same time, it's annoying to those of us who see it as a clear-cut way to make some money off of hard working geeks who may not know they're being led
    by the pied piper of geekyness -

  • this is the bedside volume which will be collecting dust in gibson-esque style roadside tech hotels of the future.

    modern day companion to the book of genesis.
  • Strange to place this book alongside Genesis. I presume you're not challenging the factuality of the content though logically that is what one might gather from your comment. If Genesis were factual in the same way as the O'Reilly book it would hardly be irrelevant.
  • > Hell, even GNU disses manpages in favor of "info"!
    ...which is high on the list of irritating GNU mistakes.
    Does anyone actually like all those "Warning: This man page
    is updated only occasionally" man pages GNU supplies?
    Beyond that, does anyone actually prefer using 'info'
    to man?
  • Also, manpages aren't required in SysV (they're a BSD-ism)

    Ha. The First Edition man pages are available online.

    Hell, even GNU disses manpages in favor of "info"!

    "Those who don't understand UNIX are condemned to reinvent it, poorly." -- Henry Spencer

  • Me, by far.

    Access time in a man page is linear, and
    in an info file (of course I don't use info,
    I use emacs to read it) it's logarithmic.

    Most man pages are short enough for not making
    too much difference, but for instance the info
    file for tar is much superior to its man page.
  • An anonymous coward scribbled:
    Man pages are too-kitchen sink for the clueful-newbie.
    Apparently you have a different definition of `clueful' than I have.
    ... manpages aren't required in SysV (they're a BSD-ism) ...
    I must take issue with this notion that `manpages are a BSDism'. You are demonstrably wrong: they were included with Version 7 [], as this manpage [] clearly indicates. And your statement about SysV is also wrong: manpages are required on any system that purports POSIX compliance, as AIX learned the hard way.

    Unfortunately, technically speaking, only catpages not manpages are required. Perhaps that's what you meant. But even catpages are better than nothing.

    ...even GNU disses manpages ...
    This hardly constitutes a fine selling point in your favor. Sometimes the FSF pertains more to the problem set than they do the solution set; this is certainly one of those places. Not only do they ignore the POSIX requirements, they appear to disavow the need for a unified, indexable, searchable, printable, formalized set of technical documentation. This is hardly what most of us would call `progress'.

    It's bad enough when you summon up a manpage only to be infuriatingly chidden by the FSF that `This documentation is no longer being maintained and may be inaccurate or incomplete.' Worse still is the situation with programs like diff or gnomecal, which are completely bereft of any manpage whatsoever. The FSF should be ashamed of themselves! This is one of the root causes of the notorious Daemon Linux [] project.

    This lackadaisical attitude toward complete, on-line documentation is hardly confined to the FSF, although I hold them ultimately responsible for one area: Linux distributors. The Linux rebundlers inherit the problem from the FSF, and do nothing about it. Take SuSE for example. In virtually all other aspects a robust and coherent Linux distribution, SuSE confesses in their printed book that accompanies their CD that not all commands and functions have documentation. What a punt! They're just being irresponsible.

    I suppose that one could in desperation invent some sort of rarefied alibi for the FSF's negligence here. They are, after all, more dedicated to principle than they are to mundane matters of quotidian utility. But for those who repackage and sell Linux distributions, no excuse can exist. These businesses are selling what they purport to be an integrated system, yet then have the audacity to confess that it is not. If the FSF won't fix this, then the resellers must. But the FSF really is the right place to fix it, because that way the fix helps everyone, rather than just one reseller trying to create a market advantage for themselves.

    But this already depressing situation gets worse, far worse, before it gets better. You see, as programmers try to create something flashy enough to attract non-programmers, something critical has been lost. I'm thinking of those programs whose GUIs are the Way, the Truth, and the Light, whereby no man cometh unto the documentation for a given program save through its lauded GUI. If the information is not found under an About button or a Help button, it simply isn't available. Even if it were to be found there, how would you know it? Once you figure out each program's new set of hieroglyphics, these miserable shinyhappy icons and their cascading shinyhappy menus just aren't greppable. How do you in a non-manual fashion search through these myriad menus? How do you print them out? How do you create an index?

    This situation in completely unacceptable.

    Having recently tried out the whole Eterm, Enlightenment, and Gnome set-up, as duly impressed as I was with Eterm's manpage, I was severely underwhelmed by the attention toward detailed -- strike that, make it any -- documentation manifest in the other two. Miguel has assured me that what I had looked at was a mistake, that the released snuck out without the libraries' docs included. But I want more than only the programming libraries having manpages. If it's a command or a file format, it needs to be documented! Otherwise we're back to the mushroom school of systems management (keep us in the dark and feed us shit). Every little gnomic panel application and associated happycon needs a manpage, one that apropos and whatis can access, as well. Don't make me click with a mouse to find help and directions. I didn't spend thirty years mastering the keyboard and learning to read and write lengthy treatises merely to be reduced to a one-bit input device and a two-line output device.

    Having to randomly hunt through manpages, HOWTOs, info pages, various programs' home pages out on the Web, per-program help pages, and stringsing the infernal binaries is shear madness As Henry Spencer observed, `Those who do not understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it, poorly.' Unified Unix manpages solved the insane situation in which you had shelves upon shelves of printed documentation that came with an IBM mainframe; these docs weren't online, so were unnavigable. Apparently we are doomed to repeat that unhappy history.

    While it's true that I write all my books in troff, along with the traditional helpmates of eqn, pic, and tbl, please don't assume by this that I am particularly enamoured of that system. I'm certainly not. What I do expect in proper online documentation is the properties that manpages provide:

    • All documentation must be contained and accessible from within the same on-line system.
    • Available for independent on-line viewing, apart from the application.
    • Format easy to read and write by humans, parse and generate by programs.
    • Conveniently structured.
    • Printable as a high-quality book using a typesetter.
    • Searchable and indexable using standard tools.
    The language used to encode this information is far less important than is having these basic features. Without a coherent, comprehensive, and unified documentation system, we might as well all be running some expert-hostile and user-obsequious toybox suitable for the point-and-drool atechnical public all too typical in these post-literate Dark Ages, where WYSIWYG means that what you see is all you get.


Someday somebody has got to decide whether the typewriter is the machine, or the person who operates it.