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Books are probably my preferred medium of learning. I prefer books to the degree that I chose to look into Ruby last year rather than concentrate on Python because of the availability of good quality Ruby books and a dearth of good Python books.

I know that I prefer books partially because of personal, fluff reasons. I know books. Books have a physical presence. Books are old-fashioned, just like me sometimes.

Books are "offline" resources. If I read something in a book and need to go back to it, I can pick up that book, page to where it was, and reread it. As long as I have physical access to a book, I can find that information at any time, no matter where I am. Computer resources instead rely on the presence of a computer. I tend to forget to bring my aging laptop with me so I can't rely on that. Internet resources rely on being connected to the internet, which is not likely in some circumstances, such as on a train.

Books are "permanent" resources. Barring physical destruction, a book is going to last a reasonably long time. Texts dating back at least a millenium are known to still be usable and readable (assuming you understand the language). Internet resources are, by comparison, "transient." A web page that you look at today may not be available tomorrow. The site maintainer could take the site offline. The author could delete the page. The page could be moved as part of a site reorganization and the maintainer could fail to put redirects in place to send visitors to the new location.

Books are more useful to me than web browsers for accessing many things at once. However, this is likely because I only have a single screen for development. If I had multiple monitors (two, or even Jeff Atwood's three), this may not be as much of an issue.

Books have their drawbacks too. They're heavy so they're not really portable. I think two decent-sized books (thinking the hardback first edition of W. Richard Stevens' Advanced Programming in the UNIX(R) Environment and Martin Fowler's Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code) are heavier than all but the largest laptops. Computers clearly win for information density. (The PDF for the second edition of the Pickaxe book (or, if you prefer, Programming Ruby) is not quite 6 MB. Since you can get light, less-than-a-pound flash drives that hold 8 GB, you could carry over one thousand books on a key chain.)

The search function of books sucks. Unless you know about where the content you want to find is, you have to consult the index and then use that to try to find it. There's no ready indicator of fluff versus desired content. And, in the end, you are at the mercy of whoever created the index. If they did a poor job of making the index, you will encounter difficulties finding what you're looking for. The internet clearly wins here. Google can search a vast repository of human knowledge which easily contains more information than some libraries.

There are some compromises. Several publishers offer their books in eBook or PDF format. This increases portability and, in some cases, search as well. I imagine you could possibly write a local search engine to search PDFs if you can access their content. O'Reilly and Pearson Technology Group created Safari Books Online, a service by which you pay money every month (or year) to get internet access to a large number of books. $42.99/month gets you unlimited access and there are cheaper although limited options. I personally find this service invaluable for what I do but your mileage may vary.

I personally believe that books and computers (including the internet) will eventually balance themselves out and complement each other. In addition to services like Safari Books Online, I expect most of the short-term information, e.g. what goes into books like Python Cookbook, will eventually end up online. A wiki equivalent of O'Reillys Cookbook or Hacks series is where I see that going. The longer-term information, more "language agnostic" topics, e.g. Refactoring or the Gang of Four's Design Patterns will continue to be seen in book format. Books will never completely vanish, not even from the developer culture.


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