Why Buy a Book when the Docs are Free?

Nov 1, 2013

Reading the official documentation is a daunting prospect when learning a language or framework. Tutorials and guide books help make the abstract concepts of official documentation a concrete puzzle to be solved, but resolve to a paradox where they offer an excellent introduction but an awful resource once you’ve built the project. If I’m paying good money for a book it should last beyond the first read.

I recently read through Discover Meteor book (not an affiliate link), and the authors have created that easy introduction and built in few ways to salvage its potential as recurring resource.

Discover Meteor is a guide to build a simplified clone of Reddit. It primarily focuses on the components that make it a Meteor project, such as the Meteor-specific JS and Handlebars templating, while glossing over CSS/HTML. In that alone it’s a fantastic guide for Meteor. Following along — and catching the inevitable mistake — is simple and transparent. There’s a live instance of the application at every commit point and links to the GitHub commit. While it’s possible to browse through the commits of a public repo myself, they’ve smartly eliminated that required knowledge.

They could have stopped there and successfully built a good tutorial for Meteor. But to make this a book I can return to they added two valuable features.

First, the authors will provide free updates of the book. That’s a pretty solid offer on its own. Meteor is in a beta preview and is rapidly evolving as it moves towards v1. If they’re providing updates, I can come back and review how they tackled a problem to get some ideas for a future project and still have that solution be relevant.

Something I like even more were the “sidebars.” These are pseudo-chapters with a deeper explanation of critical concepts or provide tips on extending beyond what the guide covers. They’re more conversational than Meteor’s official docs. For some, just hearing the same information in a new way can make a concept more accessible, and the more abstract ideas like publish/subscribe were explained really well. In particular, I can find myself returning to the sidebars on deployment and Meteorite Packages for future projects.

However, the greatest offering for this book or any other tutorial is that it offers a straightforward means of learning something foreign by tying it to a real problem and forcing you to solve it. Discover Meteor did that job well. Having worked through a build once I’ll be able to identify the pieces that are required to complete my next project and confidently review the docs for free. That self sufficiency is worth twice the price.