Book Review: HTML Utopia

Every once in a while you read a technical book that has a profound impact on what you do from a day to day basis.  In 2004 I had a web designer friend of mine look at my personal web site to give me advice on something I was trying to do.  He right clicked and did a “view source” and the first thing that he said was “Oh, you are still using tables” and he promptly handed me a copy of the first edition of HTML Utopia: Designing without Tables using CSS and told me to read it and come back when I “Caught up to the 2000s”.  I have not done a table based layout since reading the book.  A few years ago I noticed that there was a second edition of the book and I felt I needed a refresher course, so I bought the updated copy of the book.  The book was not just an update, the co-author added quite a bit of new content.  The updates made a good book even better.

Quick Review

If you are looking for a book to help you make the leap from using table based web pages to using well formed HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) this is the book for you.  It is very easy to read and it is a technology book that you can actually read.  The book presumes very little experience with CSS (although it does assume that you know web development).  If you already are familiar with CSS and just looking for a reference book, there are more complete references available.

About Table-less design and CSS

Tables were commonly used in the 1990s for layout.  There were a lot of advantages to using tables in the early days of the web, but times have changed.  CSS has been around for a while, but it was mostly used for styling (applying fonts and colors).  CSS2 (the second rev of the specification) added features for using CSS to do true page layout.  Once browsers were updated to properly use the specification (NO IE6 jokes, please) it became possible to limit the use of tables to tabular data, which was probably the intention of the original specifications.

About the book

As I mentioned in the quick review, one of the best things about this book is that it reads very easy in a style that makes it easy to learn the ins and outs of CSS Positioning.  One of the neat things is you also can start to apply what you are learning within a couple of chapters, you don’t have to finish the whole book.  The topics gets more advanced as you go through the book, but each chapter builds nicely on the previous chapters (that is one downside to the book; it is hard to go right to a topic that is in the middle of the book).

In addition to the learning part of the book, it also contains a good sized appendix that is a reference of the most common CSS elements and how to use them.  It is not an exhaustive list of elements, nor are they defined in great detail.  It is a serviceable reference if you know the element and are just looking for a quick refresher.

Online and Offline

One of the neat things about the book is that all of the samples are built around a case study, the fictional site Footbag Freaks that is dedicated to the sport of hacky sack.  The use of a consistent sample throughout the book is good, but it is augmented with the actual working site on the Internet, which allows you to interact with it in your browser(s) and get the latest sample code.  The site seems to have been updated a couple of times to keep it abreast of updates to the major browsers.  It is great that a book can have an ever green component to it like the working case study.

Note: In case you “view source” on this web site, there are a couple of tables used to layout the comments pages, but those are from generated code, not anything I did.

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