CSS Book Reviews

TheOpenSourcery staff are well known at the various book stores in our area, maybe because we spend so much time peering through the books before finally making up our minds and buying a book. We have a special - "don't put away, will buy pile" - which often is too small given the volume of books we churn through.The people at World's Largest, who were helping this reviewer dutifully put away tome after tome on database and web development systems, were a bit stupified - when just two or three glances at Eric Meyer's Eric Meyer on CSS and it went on the "will buy pile" right away. A knowing sales clerk commented - "this CSS - Cascading StyleSheet stuff must be a hot topic".

And indeed it is. Microsoft led the way - and maybe went too far a la Java by implementing some non-standard CSS capabilities in IE starting with 4.x and continuing with the IE5 and IE6 browsers. Now the other browser vendors have caught up and leaped ahead of Microsoft - first by strictly adhering to and robustly implementing all of CSS 1 and much of the CSS 2 standards including the DOM programming.

This has huge implications because layering through CSS is now finally available not only in a standard way but also a very capable implementation which can be controlled programmatically (think JavaScript, Java, or any .NET) theough the DOM. For this reason alone, users should update to the new browsers - and specifically either Mozilla/Netscape or Opera. What Eric Meyer's book does so well is describe what the new CSS standards mean in terms of better, easier to develop, and yet very attractive web designs. So update your browsers now.!

In contrast to his CSS2 Reference book which is a comprehensive and disciplined run through all of the CSS 1 and CSS 2 commands and attributes, Eric's Mastering book takes a project based approach to CSS. Yes there are sections on stylesheets, classes, backround and accessibility options. But the emphasis is demonstrating CSS capabilities with very useful and often visually stunning projects which run in all of the 5.x browsers.

The book starts with some styling exercises on an events calendar and press release pages. Then Eric ups the ante with some nifty menuing designs which have the virtue of being fast, practical to use and maintain -and very attractive. These exercises are followed some multi-column layouts which you could do with tables but have advantages in CSS div layers. The "out of the box" section illustrates wonderfully some of the new box and framing capabilities. In fact, the stylish examples gets users thinking out of the box on what can be done with simple HTML and CSS without need to resort to programming with JavaScript or other extra coding. Eric proves once again that there is a lot of life and style in HTML and simple CSS styles in web development.

Okay I admit it, this book did not leap off the shelf into my hands - in fact being a committed user of HTML tables - HTML Utopia:Designing Without Tables Using CSS by Dan Shafer was not an immediate hit. It is sort of like the illustration on the front cover - designing HTML pages without tables is like dining without support for the dishes ... or so I thought. But to my surprise in a carefully built up presentation Dan argues eloquently for the use of CSS in place of tables. First, Dan starts off carefully illustrating all the basics well in the context of a case. Next,Dan explains how CSS positioning provides precise absolute positioning that is hard to duplicate in tables; but this "absolute" can be changed programmatically through the DOM or simple .CSS file edits. And on and on ... as Dan builds up a case for CSS Positioning and Stylesheets.

This reviewer, like Dan, thinks there is room for both. Tables when used wisely give block relative positioning that can expand and contract with very simple changes to the content only. CSS gives much more formatting and layout control than tables; but at a price of greater complexity of syntax in some areas. But as Dan points out that complexity can be hidden in .CSS stylesheet files or scripted programming. For PHP and Perl scripts, CSS output makes a lot more sense. But I have clients using Macro media's Contribute going to specific table cells changing the images and content drastically for which tables (without locked in height=xx or width=yy values) are perfect because they expand and contract by factors of 2-5 without upsetting the HTML applecart. But this is a good book made better with a most comprehensive reference guide to CSS syntax in the back that puts Dreamweaver's built in O'Reilly CSS Reference to shame.

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