Monday, March 12, 2012

On Tech Reading & Learning

I recently posted mini-book reviews of tech books. This got me thinking about the worth of books in the digital era for learning new technologies.

Personal E-Book History

When the iPad came out I was working at Rain and they were happy to buy me e-books to help me learn the latest and greatest technology, but I was slow to embrace the digital medium for reading, Mostly I really liked the way holding a book in-front of me felt. After I left Rain and wanted some new tech books and I noticed that O'Reilly regularly offered significant discounts on their e-books. Similarly, the fantastic A Book Apart series offers e-book versions of their mini-books for $8. It quickly became difficult to justify purchasing the paperback version of these books, so I started reading technical e-books pretty much exclusively.

Learning Styles

A great thing about books, both the paper and e varieties,  is that they have fewer distractions than a lot of other modern learning mediums. Think about Twitter. It encourages distraction. You might see 5 interesting links since yesterday. You have no way to read all of them thoroughly. The topics are wide ranging and the content decent, but you also want to stay up with the latest posts. Each of those links may have comments and a sidebar full of interesting stuff. It's not a focused experience. Books offer the ability to dive into something a little deeper and stay focused on them a little longer.

Moving to e-books I found that I could read books wherever I went. I read most of CSS3 for Web Designers on my iPhone while my wife and I were shopping at Old Navy. Suddenly the structured learning experience that books provide was completely portable.

Lately, I've been doing a lot of reading at the gym as I run on the treadmill. Normal tech books just don't work well in this environment, because they're either too big or the pages don't stay open. E-books on the other hand are perfect. Being able to read a book at the gym helps me stay focused and not think about the treadmill moving under my feet, so I read a lot and get fit while I'm doing it!


In this age of digital learning are books still the ideal way to learn? I'll just lay out some of their obvious downsides.

Technical books are inherently static. You can't interact with them physically. They don't update automatically. They're essentially out of date the day they're published.

They're one sided. Web discussions and forums provide many viewpoints, because anyone can comment. A book may have one or two preset ways of looking at things, but it can hardly be expected to cover all of them.

Books can be really long. They must think they're really important for technical books to venture into the 800 page range (actually the post-120 range is pretty much enough for me). I don't have a huge attention span. While books encourage focus, they can only hold that focus for so long. It's hard to wade through all of the content of the multi-hundred page book.

Book I Like Best

While I'm really good at looking up information on the Internet. I don't always know what I should be looking up. For all of their former glory books with titles like Bible, Definitive Guide and Cookbook  are losing the battle for my attention span. In this I'll much more likely hit up the MDN or StackOverflow than pull out of a paper-back guide when I'm in the middle of a project. Despite their waning appeal there are still books out there that I value greatly.

Books that appeal to me are short.
Books that appeal to me are specific.
Books that appeal to me introduce me to new concepts.
Books that appeal to me often use color to make them clearer.

As I read books that meet these criteria I'm able to learn something new wherever I am and then when I get back to a computer somewhere I know what terms I want to use in my search for more about the topic. These books open my mind up to a new concept or idea. The practical knowledge of how to apply that idea to my specific situation is something I'd probably much rather find online where it will be up-to-date, littered with helpful comments, and checked out by the community at large.

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