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Learning JavaScript

Shelley Powers
Published by O'Reilly Media
ISBN: 978-0-596-52187-5
396 pages
£ 26.99
Published: 26th December 2008
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the June 2009 issue (pdf), (html)

Javascript. It lurks there on the key sites of the modern Web, tucked into the element. At its best it flows like water, eliminating awkward clicks and server transactions and making interaction a smooth, effortless joy. At its worst, it deletes form content, insists on inputs one doesn't wish to supply, and condemns the browser to a grinding death whilst slowly fading in a badly framed photograph of a cat in a cardboard box.

O'Reilly publishes a “Learning …” volume for several major programming languages. These are intended to complement the more definitive reference books and lead a learner through the key features of the language, observing its quirks along the way. When selecting a tutorial book it's important that the student match their expectations to the text's approach.

Learning Javascript is a thorough introduction to the language. It assumes some familiarity with programming concepts, but it begins with basics and almost 150 pages pass before the browser magic appears. As such it is not a good choice for a web developer who needs flashy Javascript effects right now. After the nineteen page early chapter discussing the subtleties of data types and null versus undefined variables, such a reader will likely move on to another book, if not another career.

The ideal audience is probably someone who has decided to learn Javascript and is willing to put in the time to gain a thorough understanding of the language with no expectation of immediate results. After the obligatory Hello World example, the road leads slowly and surely through variables, operators and statements, objects, functions, and so on, each chapter building on the last until we reach event handling, DOM, dynamic pages and finally AJAX.

Throughout there is an emphasis on detail: when you might want explicitly create a String object rather than a string primitive, and why; how to avoid circular references and memory leaks; planning to avoid cross-site scripting attacks. Where the language displays unintuitive behaviour, this book explains why and is normally illuminating.

Browser compatibility is always a question with Javascript, and Learning Javascript deals with this square on, making clear immediately its target browsers: Firefox 3, Opera 9, Safari 3 and Internet Explorer 8 (with IE6 and IE7 dragging their heels at the rear). We receive occasional glimpses into the tortured past of browser wars but thankfully are advised to leave all this behind. Accessibility is also given a welcome early focus.

This is a volume for the programmer who is willing to sit down and grind through the basics in order to reach a deeper understanding of the Javascript language. It does feature a useful quiz at the end of each chapter to check your knowledge. However if you simply need to pick up some Javascript quickly to spread glitter on your web site, the pace may leave you feeling like the black rhinoceros on the cover.

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