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Should You Use a Book to Learn to Code?

Is learning to write code with a book a thing of the past? Or is there still something we can get from a book that we can’t get from a web-based resource?

My beginner years of learning to code were in the early 2010s, when using a book was a more mainstream approach.

A quick google search on any topic today will yield hundreds (or thousands) of YouTube videos, blog posts, podcasts, online courses, upcoming workshops, and so on. While web-based resources are plentiful, books still have their purpose.

What I've provided in the sections below are considerations when you're faced with a decision to buy a book or look online for the answer.

A Book is Physically There for You

The one thing I love about books is having the physical thing with me. There's an emotional bond and psychological benefits to it, regardless of whether it's a coding book or a novel. It's a thing that's there with you, not just a place on the internet.

You don't need to be in front of a screen to use it, which makes it much easier to consume without distractions (and easier to read at night). Combining that with physically highlighting or taking notes has continued to make the material in books stick stronger in my brain.

Books Grow Outdated More Quickly

Perhaps the most frequent argument against coding books is that they can fall out of date very quickly. There's no denying that.

How quickly a book falls out of date often depends on a combination of subject matter and coincidence.

It takes a long time for a book to go from its initial draft to publication. Changes are constantly being made before printing begins. But when that happens, that version of the book is locked in place.

Outdated by Subject Matter

A book on learning to write HTML and CSS can probably last for a while, especially if it isn't using new-age residual tooling. Even if advancements in HTML and CSS arise, it will take years before the previous approaches become mainstream to the masses.

On the other hand, if a book is on an emerging and constantly-changing piece of technology, its longevity will be limited. While a book on the fundamentals of JavaScript may be relevant for years, one on a specific framework, like React or Next.js, may grow outdated faster.

Outdated by (un)Luckiness

It's also worth considering that timing can be unlucky. Some solid tool that's been around for more than a decade may decide to make a bigger change than it has in years quickly after a book is published. That's unfortunate, but it's a risk you take when purchasing a book.

Books Are Versioned

Still, it's important to note that coding books are typically versioned. The next version will take time to get published, but if the book is popular enough, it will happen.

Style Is More Flexible on the Web

Formatting in books is limited and full-color printing is expensive.

Content on the web is only limited by a screen, and the cost is negligible regardless of the style. Websites can continue to experiment with different formats for reading that a book can't support.

Websites can check off sections automatically after you've completed a test. They can provide colorful syntax highlighting that makes it easier to read the content. They can provide a mechanism for writing the code right in the browser and testing the code you wrote.

A book contains static text, and it's up to you to decide how you're going to interact with it.

Book Content Is Focused and Reviewed

As flexible as content on the web can be, anyone can put anything on the web. When you choose to learn on the web, it's up to you to vet the author and the content. With a book, the writers were selected by publishers as experts in the field, and it likely took several iterations of the material to get to the published state.

Content on the web can absolutely be delivered at this level. There's a plethora out there. But that comes with wading through much more really bad, rushed content.

When you learn on the web, there will definitely be trials and errors in the content you find. Although it's a necessary skill to learn, it's also a relief to open a book and not have as big of a burden in validating the author.

The Value of a Book

You have to pay for a book. I've heard folks complain about this. But of course you do! It's a thing that a professional put effort into.

You're paying for content on the web, too. And that may not always be direct cost. Here are a few ways:

  • Validating the creators of the content takes time and energy away from learning.
  • Ads distract from the focus of the content (that's their goal).
  • Online courses can be much more expensive than a book.

The Best Way To Learn

The best way to learn how to write code is whatever works best for you. Try both methods. Buy a book and see how it feels. Watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, buy an online course. See what feels right. Which information sticks best. What is most enjoyable.

Over time, you'll find your preferred method, or you may find a combination to be right for you.

I relied on books heavily early in my career, and I still buy the occasional book. While many prefer learning via videos today, I like to read. I can skim text quickly and find what I'm looking for. I don't spend as much time-consuming audio or video (even though I produce both) because it's too distracting for me. And yet, the reason I produce audio and video, and the reason there's so much out there, is because so many people love it.

Put it to the test. Try various methods and pick what works for you. But don't discount coding books before trying one.

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