Recently I decided to try PHP for a little task, involving forms, file scanning with regexp, and other basic things. Although I've scanned numerous online PHP guides before, I wasn't sure how to do this, so I went to the local computer store and scanned the PHP titles. Many books filled those shelves, and I had little time to scan them. But then I spied a peachpit book on the topic, and since I've found them helpful (and inexpensive) before, I picked it up without even scanning it.
This was Larry Ullman's book. Within minutes I had a basic idea how to do what I wanted, and within an hour I had code working. Now, some of this is just that php is a good language -- and a familiar one, to Perl users like myself -- but part of it is that Ullman has crafted a fine little book, easy to navigate and easy to digest. Like all Peachpit books, this is aimed at beginners. And, like most computer books, the details matter less than the framework. I gather, from other reviews I've seen on Amazon, that this book suffers some errors, e.g. in a discussion of prime numbers. I'm not sure I care, or that others should care. This is because I can't imagine reading this book (or any computer guide) from cover to cover, studying the details. Rather, readers do what I did. I needed to know how to open and read a file, so I looked in the table of contents and flipped to a page stating clearly how to do that. Ten seconds of scanning, plus a minute of study, and I was back to my text editor, typing in code. Ditto on the use of regular expressions (which is done in an odd non-perlish way in PHP). Did I read all the details of regular expressions? Lord, no. I just found the name of the subroutine, checked whether the search string or the pattern goes first, and I was back to my coding.
This is the essence of computer books of this ilk. The _defining_ textbook should be very clear, very detailed, and very accurate. (Think of Kernighan and Ritchie for the C language.) But a quick-start guide is not meant to be studied labouriously. It is meant to be flipped through one evening, and then put beside the terminal the next day. Finding information should be quick, and digesting it should require scanning only a page or so. In these regards, Ullman's book shines.
Another factor is cost. This book was about 1/3 of the competitors in my local store. One should admit that these books are really throwaway items anyway, since once you get familiar you'll go to online resources of the latest developments. This might argue that cost is significant, and that the best scheme is to buy a cheap and digestable guide to get started, switching to online resources once you've reached your stride. In a nutshell, this is what I like about Peachpit books, Ullman's being no exception.
The bottom line is that it got me coding in a few minutes, really, within the time it took me to write these words!