Head First Java

Earlier this year I decided to learn Java. Grabbing a copy of ‘Learning Java’ from O’Reilly I started learning.

Of course, you can’t learn Java without a good understanding of object-oriented languages. I made fairly heavy going with ‘Learning Java’ until I decided to dive in head first, ‘Head First Java’ that is – I bought this book that has a totally different attitude to teaching than I’ve seen before in computer books. The style is humorous, full of graphics, cartoons, puzzles, quizzes and crosswords. It reminds me of the textbooks that used to try and teach me geometry and algebra in high school or my daughters elementary books on Roman and Greek history I purchased for her at the British Museum. The style didn’t work to teach me much algebra and geometry, but I wasn’t anywhere near as motivated. This time, it worked. In a couple of weeks I worked through the book and finally have Java skills where I can branch off and start coding the projects I had in mind (though something more advanced will be required soon.)

In the introduction the authors examine learning and explain why they designed the book as they did. To quote from one section: “Some of the Head First learning principles. Make it visual. Put the words within or near the graphics. Use a conversational and personalized style. Get the learner to think more deeply. Get-and keep-the reader’s attention. Touch their emotions.” They argue that our brain is tuned to novelty, and that their style provides the novelty to keep your brain turned on. They also provide ten tips for good learning. That’s one thing that seems to set this book apart from most other computer books, they say they think of their reader as a learner and indeed that’s the way you are treated by the book.

The book also has a good emphasis on test-driven development, a good style to get new programmers started. I also appreciated the excellent chapter on how to package all your code up for release, something that you might expect to be trivial but not quite as easy as expected.

When compared to ‘Learning Java’ the coverage is not as good, ‘Head First’ really only covers the basics, up to and including creating a GUI with SWING and then touches a number of others; ‘Learning Java’ goes on to explore, with a fair depth, network programming, web programming, servlets, applets, Java Beans, XML and other topics that are only touched on briefly in ‘Head First.’ If the style of learning does not suit you then this will be an incredibly irritating and useless book, I’d give it a try first, though.

This edition also has a fair number of errors, including some in the examples. To this all I can say is “shame, shame, shame.” I keep on harping on this in computer book reviews but if you can’t figure out a way of including code that compiles and/or runs in your book then give up. The example code is available online – how hard is it to check that it all runs and then include that source directly into the text.

When you get down to it, though, the only way to really decide on the worth of a tutorial is to decide how well it teaches. ‘Head First Java’ excels at teaching. OK, I thought it was silly, I had a hard time making myself do the exercises, fill out the crosswords and solve the puzzles. Then I realized that I was thoroughly learning the topics as I went through the book. ‘Learning Java’ was doing the same job, but the dry traditional method wasn’t doing as well. Both books are well written, designed and constructed-the style of ‘Headfirst Java’ just made learning, well, easier.

It would seem to me that the ‘Head First’ approach is going to work wonderfully for the more ‘beginner’ topics, books for introducing you to a new style of programming, a new language or a radically different operating system or application. So if you’re looking for a book to introduce you to Java then I can recommend ‘Head First Java’. Now if I could only find a book as good to introduce me to Common Lisp.

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