Book Review: “JavaScript: The Definitive Guide”

I felt a little nerdy asking for this for Christmas, but it was worth while read

The web apps I write for this site are written in JavaScript, and after landing a web developer job two years ago, I’ve focused more on getting better at everything web related – through reading blogs, writing apps, and reading books.

As far as books were concerned, there had been one which had consistently caught my eye, but which I’d kept resisting due to its size. I have a short attention span and I was worried I wouldn’t finish it. I also tried to foolishly convince myself that I probably already knew most of what it covered – after finishing JavaScript: The Good Parts and a couple other short books, I felt I had a pretty good handle on the language. What else could there really be to know? But temptation got the best of me, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a great book and I learned a ton.

JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, by David Flanagan, is 1078 pages* of densely packed information on the JavaScript programming language. It’s not filled with fluff and it covers an amazing amount of ground. In truth, it’s really 3 books in one: a book on the core JavaScript language, a book on client-side JavaScript development, and a reference book for client-side and core development. It’s written for people familiar with programming who want to gain an in-depth understanding of everything they can do with JavaScript.

An experiment in retaining information

I didn’t want to read this book and then 6 months later not remember anything I’d read. I had a friend who’d read it and not gotten much out of it, but I believed that may have been because of information overload. Leisurely reading technical books can be fun, but the information isn’t going to stick unless you use it or discuss it. So I decided to try an experiment – after each chapter, I was going to write up a set of notes on what I found interesting in that chapter. That would force me to go back over the information and help me document what I may want to go back to later on.

I did this on the wordpress blog Reading the Rhino JS Book. It’s really just a collection of notes, but it’s a great way for me to go back and go “oh yeah, this is what I found interesting in this chapter”. In the beginning I was really excited and felt it was a great way to read a technical book – if you’re going to invest the time in reading a large book, you might as well invest the time to try and retain the information. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got tired of writing up notes on each chapter. So my feelings are mixed. I do believe it helped in organizing what I learned and found interesting, but it was also a bit of a pain towards the end. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll take notes on each chapter of the next programming book I read, but I can say it was useful to do so in this case.

Who should read this Book?

I would not recommend this book for people who are new to JavaScript. It does contain almost everything you need to know, but it’s not really written for the newbie. When you’re new you want to get up and running quickly, and you want a brief introduction to the tool set you have at hand. For that, JavaScript: The Good Parts is probably the better choice.

If you do front-end web development professionally, or you just really like writing web apps, this book is worth picking up. It’s written to be readable and thoroughly covers the current set of web technologies you have at your finger tips with JavaScript. Even if you feel like you have a good handle on things, this book does a good job at filling in the gaps. As an example, I knew JavaScript did automatic semicolon insertion if you forgot to include semicolons**, but I wasn’t sure how this worked. It turns out that the ECMAScript spec has a clearly defined algorithm for this, and knowing how it works gives some insight into using the language.

Final Thoughts

This is probably now my favorite book on JavaScript. A couple weeks ago I was openly pondering where I wanted to go web development wise, and I think, for now, I’m going to focus on client-side development. This doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore back-end stuff, I do a lot of PHP at work and there’s other back-end technologies like Ruby, Python, and Node which look interesting, but the client-side looks like it has the most utility for app developers. It’s nice to be able to quickly write a single page app, upload it, and have anyone be able to use it.

* 716 pages if you don’t include the reference sections.
** Technically the interpreter doesn’t insert semicolons, it just treats a line break as the end of a statement in certain situations. Thus it’s sort of simulating semicolon insertion.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “JavaScript: The Definitive Guide””

  1. This is an excellent idea. I plan on doing something similar for Javascript: The Good Parts. My experience with JS began with learning jQuery and I don’t yet feel as though I have a sufficient understanding of the underlying language. I also often have a terrible time committing things to memory unless I put it to practice immediately, so I’m hoping writing down what I’ve learned throughout each chapter will reinforce what I’ve read.

    Great post!

  2. [22:31] <Ara> NickY: jQuery is definitely more convenient than writing out what it’s doing under the hood longhand every time. That said, understanding what it’s doing can be helpful. Especially if you’re going to be coding web applications that do a lot of heavy lifting in the client but not necessary on the DOM layer.

    1. I can’t tell if you’re a spambot or not. What you quoted is sort of relevant, but also a little weird. Are you a spambot?

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