Book review: C# 3.0 in a Nutshell

Resources:

Introduction

The original C# in a Nutshell was the book I cut my C# teeth on, so to speak. Basically I read it (well, the bits which weren’t just reproductions of MSDN – gone in this edition, thankfully), played around in Visual Studio, and then started to answer questions on the C# newsgroup. (That’s a great way of learning useful things, by the way – find another person’s problem which sounds like it’s one you might face in the future, then research the answer.)

Five and a half years later (Google groups suggests I cut my teeth in the C# newsgroup in August 2002) I’ve just been reading C# 3.0 in a Nutshell, by Joe and Ben Albahari (who are brothers, in case anyone’s wondering). Unsurprisingly, there’s rather a lot more in this version :) I bought the book with a fairly open mind, and as you’ll see, I was quite impressed…

For the purposes of this review, I’ll use the “Nutshell” to mean “C# 3.0 in a Nutshell”. It’ll just make life a bit easier.

Scope

Nutshell covers:

  • C# 1.0 to 3.0 (i.e. it’s “from scratch”)
  • Core framework (serialization, assemblies, IO, strings, regex, reflection, threading etc)
  • LINQ to XML
  • A bit of LINQ to SQL while discussing LINQ in general

It explicitly doesn’t try to be a “one stop shop for every .NET technology”. You won’t find much about WinForms, WPF, WCF, ASP.NET etc – to which my reaction is “hoorah!”. I’ve probably said it before on this blog, but if you’re going to use any of those technologies in any depth, you really need to study that topic in isolation. One chapter in a bigger book just isn’t going to cut it.

That’s the scope of the book. The scope of my review is slightly more limited. I’ve read the C# stuff reasonably closely, and dipped into some of the framework aspects – particularly those I’m fairly knowledgeable about. The idea was to judge the accuracy and depth of coverage, which would be hard to do for topics which I’m relatively inexperienced in.

Format and style

Nutshell is a reference book which goes to some lengths to be readable in a “cover to cover” style. It’s worth mentioning the contrast here with C# in Depth, which is a “cover to cover” book which attempts to be useful as a reference too. I’d expect the index of Nutshell to be used much more than the index of C# in Depth, for example – but both books can be used in either way.

As an example of the difference in style, each section of Nutshell stands on its own: there’s little in the way of segues from one section to the next. That’s not to say that there are no segues, or indeed that there’s no flow: the order in which topics are introduced is pretty logical and sometimes there’s an explicit “having looked at X we’ll now look at Y” – but it feels to me like there’s less attempt to keep the reader going. That’s absolutely right for a reference book, and it doesn’t prevent the book from being read from cover to cover – it just doesn’t particularly encourage it.

There are lots of little callout notes, both in terms of “look here for more depth” and “be careful – here be dragons”. These are very welcome, and call attention to a lot of important points.

The layout is perfectly pleasant, in a “normal book” kind of way – it’s neither the alternating text/code/text/code style of the King/Eckel book, nor the “pictures everywhere” Head First format. In that sense it’s reasonably close to C# in Depth, although it uses comments instead of arrows for annotations. The physical format is slightly shorter and narrower than most technical books. This gives a different feeling which is hard to characterize somehow, but definitely present.

Accuracy and Depth

The main problem I had with Head First C# was the inaccuracies (which, I have to stress, are hopefully going to be fixed to a large extent in a future printing). While there are inaccuracies in Nutshell, they are generally fewer and further between, and less important. In short, I’m certainly not worried about developers learning bad habits and incorrect truths from Nutshell. Again, I’ve sent my list of potential corrections to the authors, who have been very receptive. (It’s also worth being skeptical about some of the errata which have been submitted – I’ve taken issue with several of them.)

The level of depth is very well chosen, given the scope of the book. As examples, the threading section goes into the memory model and the string section talks a bit about surrogates. It would be nice to see a little bit more discussion about internationalisation (with reference to the Turkey test, for example) as well as more details of the differences between decimal and float/double – but these are all a matter of personal preference. By way of recommendation, I’d say that if every professional developer working in .NET knew and applied the contents of Nutshell, we’d be in a far better state as a development community and industry.

The coverage of C# is very good in terms of what it does – again, appropriate for a reference work. I’d like to think that C# in Depth goes into more detail of how and why the language is designed that way, because that’s a large part of the book’s raison d’être. It would be a pretty sad indictment of C# in Depth if Nutshell were a complete superset of its material, after all.

Competitive Analysis

So, why would you buy one book and not the other? Or should you buy both? Well…

  • Nutshell covers C# 1 as well as 2 and 3. The 3.0 features are clearly labelled, and there’s an overview page of what’s new for C# 3.0 – but if you know C# 1 and just want to learn what’s in 2 and 3, C# in Depth will take you on that path more smoothly. On the other hand, if you want to look up aspects of C# 1 for reference, Nutshell is exactly what you need. I wouldn’t really recommend either of them to learn C# from scratch – if you know Java to start with, then Nutshell might be okay, but frankly getting a “basics” tutorial style book is a better starting point.
  • Nutshell covers the .NET framework as well as the language. C# in Depth looks at LINQ to Objects, rushes through LINQ to SQL/XML/DataSet, and has a bit of a look at generic collections – it’s not in the same league on this front, basically.
  • Nutshell aims to be a reference book, C# in Depth aims to be a teaching book. Both work to a pretty reasonable extent at doing the reverse.

To restate this in terms of people:

  • If you’re an existing C# 1 developer (or C# 2 wanting more depth) who wants to learn C# 2 and 3 in great detail without wading through a lot of stuff you already know, get C# in Depth.
  • If you want a C# and .NET reference book, get Nutshell.
  • If you want to learn C# from scratch, buy a “tutorial” book about C# before getting either Nutshell or C# in Depth.

Clearly Nutshell and C# in Depth are in competition: there will be plenty of people who only want to buy one of them, and which one will be more appropriate for them will depend on the individual’s needs. However, I believe there are actually more developers who would benefit greatly from having both books. I’m certainly pleased to have Nutshell on my desk (and indeed it answered a colleague’s question just this morning) – and I hope the Albahari brothers will likewise gain something from reading C# in Depth.

Conclusion

C# 3.0 in a Nutshell is really good, and will benefit many developers. It doesn’t make me feel I’ve in any way wasted my time in writing C# in Depth, and the two make good companion books, even though the material is clearly overlapping. Obviously I’d like all my readers to buy C# in Depth in preference if you can only buy one – but it really does make sense to have both.

4 thoughts on “Book review: C# 3.0 in a Nutshell”

  1. Hi Jon,

    I am sure that you have read CLR via C# (2ed).

    I think its one of the best C# books.
    Maybe you can give it a review?

    Thomas

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  2. Thomas: I haven’t actually read that one, sad to say – although I’ve heard very good things about it. I have got the previous Richter book “Applied Microsoft.NET programming in C#”.

    Will try to get hold of CLR via C# some time…

    Jon

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  3. Thanks for this review. I was hesitant to buy this book because of its early release date — last October, before the release of .NET 3.5 itself. Books that are based on betas tend to suffer from inaccuracies when compared to the final release of a product. But if you’re saying it’s accurate that’s good enough for me. :)

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  4. Chris: Don’t hold me to it being 100% accurate – it’s not, and I wouldn’t expect it to be. However, the errors are things like saying “iteration variables” instead of “range variables”, and details about exactly when static constructors are run (as opposed to static variable initializers). In other words, I was being pretty pedantic when finding mistakes.

    There may well be a few bits in LINQ to XML or LINQ to SQL which are incorrect due to early release, but I wouldn’t expect to see much.

    Now that the release date of C# in Depth is approaching, I’m beginning to get nervous of what readers will find in my book…

    Jon

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