Cascading Style Sheets are now the dominant method used to format web pages. Even something as simple as modifying a WordPress blog can involve digging around a bit in CSS. A quick search at Amazon on CSS returns over 7 thousand books in the computer category alone. This book claims to be the ultimate though, and that made me approach it with a bit of skepticism. Sure, it could be a decent reference, but is it truly the ultimate reference? I admit I was curious to see.
If any book is going to be a decent reference there are a few things that are going to need to be in place, no matter what the subject matter. I’d like to discuss those first, from front to back. The table of contents takes up 9 pages. It is specific enough to easily get the reader pointed in the right direction.
The first two chapters cover introductory material, discussing just what CSS is, what it does, and syntax/nomenclature issues. After that, every chapter is reference material, until chapter 16. The last three chapters cover vendor specific properties, various hacks and work-arounds as well as the difference between html and xhtml. Those five chapters are presented more as straight out prose compared to the reference chapters between, though they still use extensive highlighting and background colors to divide and organize content.
The reference chapters are extremely well laid out. A command, property or other item is in bold at the beginning. Below it, highlighted in grey are various arguments that can be used with that item. An example will be given in a colored box. There are two grids. One covers three aspects of the spec for this item; if it is inherited, the initial value and the css version of the item. There is also a list of browser support for the item in IE6+, FF1+, Saf1.3+ and Op9.2+. The second grid shows compatibility for three versions of Internet Explorer (5.5, 6.0 and 7.0), three versions of Firefox (1.0, 1.5 and 2.0), three versions of Safari (1.3, 2.0 and 3.0) and Opera 9.2. When appropriate there is also a discussion of or list of appropriate values and discussion of usage.
At the end of the book is a single appendix which contains an alphabetical index of properties. There is no proper index for the full book, which is not as bad as it could have been, without the other tools, but is still disappointing.
The typography is clear. The book is concise and clear with little wasted space or verbiage. The color scheme for highlighting the various sections is extremely easy to read and pleasant.
There is one more feature of the book that, aside from content, makes it very useful. There is an online edition of The Ultimate CSS Reference and as far as I can tell, it is completely open to use by anyone without any kinds of restrictions. I couldn’t find any in my copy of the book, I didn’t have to sign up for anything to use the site. This really makes up for the lack of an index as the entire book is searchable from the site. For me, it is the best of both worlds. I have the dead-tree version on my shelf, ready to pull down and satisfy my curiosity. I have the electronic version freely available on the web site, should I need it. The site has the added bonus of including an area for comments on the contents of the book, and there are already some helpful comments and tips there.
I think then, it is safe to say that mechanically this is a more than acceptable reference. The other important piece aside from it being usable, is the quality of the information itself. Good information is useless if one cannot get to it, and a great access system is useless if the information is no good.
The authors, O’Brien and Olsson are themselves extremely experienced in the field and I think it is safe to say they are experts in regards to CSS. The book also had two experienced “Expert Reviewers” in Natalie Downe and Roger Johansson. I couldn’t find any problems with the content, and I think that it is safe to say that these four, along with others have done due diligence to provide an accurate guide to CSS.
Is this the ultimate CSS reference? I haven’t read the others, and ultimate seems to imply comparison to me. So while it might not be the ultimate, I do feel comfortable recommending it to anyone who needs an extremely usable, accurate reference to CSS. I would even recommend it to a beginner who wants to learn CSS, though they should probably augment this book with something aimed at teaching CSS, not just providing a reference.
Title: The Ultimate CSS Reference
Author: Tommy Olsson & Paul O’Brien
Tagline: All the CSS knowledge you’ll ever need.