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Review: A Practical Guide to Ubuntu Linux
by Henry Kingman (Feb. 4, 2009)

Mark G. Sobell's freshly revised reference work on Ubuntu Linux may be the most impressive computer book I've seen in the last 10 years. If you are currently stranded with a pile of abandoned computers on a desert isle, I'm telling you, this is the book.

(Click for larger view of book cover)

When my review copy arrived, I met the postman at the door, and immediately wondered who might have sent me a box full of lead fishing weights. Or perhaps it was shotgun shells, I guessed, hefting the package. Opening it, I found instead 1,200+ large-format pages, on high-quality paper, all obsessively cross-referenced and indexed to a "T".

This is not a book you can sprawl out on the couch with, and enjoy casually paging through. I tried it at first, since that is my usual reading attitude. But it will crush you. Your cushions will flatten permanently under the weight. Eventually, your fingers will fall asleep, you'll drop it, and your cat will find you hours later, semi-conscious, babbling something about the bash shell.

No, this is a book that you must clear a wide berth for on the table that holds your monitor and keyboard (You may need to reinforce the table). You need to work through it slowly, page by page, over the course of several months. Years, even. (Or until the next revision.) You need to actually try out all the instructions, and actually take all the pop quizes at the end of each chapter. For that is the only way there is to absorb such weighty knowledge. Otherwise, unless you already knew it, you won't remember it.

You see, this book is the real thing. It is not some "Linux for Dummies" book, rehashing what each GUI menu item does. It holds the keys to the kingdom. Not only the Ubuntu kingdom, but the Unix kingdom itself, which Linux and for many Ubuntu have become the rightful heirs to.

The stuff you could learn from this book transcends Ubuntu, and would help you use most any Unix-style OS. BSD, QNX, Fedora, Debian, whatever. If you do use Ubuntu, of course, there's added convenience and relevance.

But either way, you'll have to work at it. It may help to recall Unix co-author Dennis Ritchie's famous quote, "Unix is simple. It just takes a genius to understand its simplicity." Failing genius, hard work and repetition serve in pretty good stead, many have found. Casual browsing, not so much. Not that casual browsing is much fun, with such a weighty tome, as noted.

Obviously, I have not read through the whole book. It just came out. But from what I have read, I've been impressed by the simple, straightforward language, the relevant and plentiful illustrations, the concise yet accessible coding style presented in the examples, and the subtlety apparent in explanations of some of Unix's, er, Ubuntu's more esoteric corners.

Other high points:
  • A 60-page index
  • Obsessive cross-indexing within the text
  • Full explanations, yet stopping short of insulting the reader's intelligence/knowledge
  • Broad topic coverage for desktop, sysadmin, and developer users
  • No fear of voodoo topics like exim4 config, regex, and kernel internals
  • Good intro to shell programming, and even perl
If I had to find a criticism, to balance out this obviously rave review, I guess I'd be justified in saying that the scope of this book is so broad, it cannot really be considered the canonical reference on any one topic area. Working through this book would not result in the reader arriving at a complete, enlightened state of Unix being. But, it seems to me, doing so would build a solid foundation on which everything else would come easily. Thus, as the title suggests, it's a practical book ideally suited for use as a textbook. Because of the excellent indexing, it also makes a pretty fine reference work.

All the other Ubuntu books (well, both of them) that have crossed my desk have been quickly shuffled off to newby friends whose commitment to acquiring deep Unix knowledge I frankly doubted. I originally planned to do the same with this one. However, I don't think that's going to work out. I'm going to have to keep this one around. In times like this, you never know when you might find yourself stranded on a desert isle, surrounded by piles of abandoned PCs.

Author Sobel offers chapter samples, ToC (long and short versions), and links to other reviews (of the first edition) on his refreshingly Netscape-era website (I like the grey background), here. He also lists there his many other books on Unix and Linux (no surprise, there).

-- Henry Kingman

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