Book Review: Effective C# (2nd edition) by Bill Wagner

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Disclaimer

Just in case you’re unaware, I’m the author of another C# book, C# in Depth. Although Effective C# is somewhat different to my book, they certainly share a target audience. To that extent, Bill and I are competitors. I try hard to stay unbiased in reviews, but it’s probably impossible. Bear this in mind while reading. I should also note that I didn’t buy my copy of Effective C#; it was kindly sent to me by Pearson, for the purpose of reviewing.

Content and target audience

Effective C# is a style guide for C# developers – but not at the low level of "put your braces here, use PascalCase for method names;" instead, it’s at the design level. As far as I can tell, the aim isn’t to be complete, just the most important aspects of style. (Hey, otherwise there wouldn’t be any need for More Effective C#, right?) There are 50 mostly-self-contained items, totalling about 300 pages to digest – which is a nice size of book, in my opinion. It’s not daunting, and the items can definitely be bitten off one at a time.

Looking down the table of contents, the items are divided into six categories: "C# language idioms", ".NET resource management", "Expressing Designs in C#", "Working with the Framework", "Dynamic Programming in C#", and "Miscellaneous". Broadly speaking these contain the sorts of thing you’d expect – although it’s worth pointing out that a significant chunk of "Working with the Framework" is given over to Parallel Extensions, which may not be obvious from the title. (It’s a really good source of information on PFX, by the way.)

This is not a tutorial on C#. If you don’t know C# reasonably well already (including generics, lambda expressions and so on) you should read another book first, and then come back to Effective C# in order to get the most out of it.

Comment from Bill: generics and lambda expressions (and LINQ) are covered in some detail in More Effective C#. It’s a bit strange that as of the 2nd edition, Effective C# covers a newer version of the language than More Effective C#. I tried hard to make sure neither book expects a reader to have read the other, but the organization of both books as a whole does show the hazards of hitting a moving target.

That’s not to say that there’s no explanation of C# – for example, Bill goes into a few details about the "dynamic" type from C# 4, as well as overloading and how optional parameters work. But these are meant to just cover some poorly-understood (or very new) aspects of the language, rather than teaching you from the beginning. The balance here feels just right to me – I believe most professional C# developers will learn details of C# they weren’t aware of before, but won’t be confused by the basics that Bill left out.

Accuracy, opinion and explanation

My copy of Effective C# has plenty of ink annotations now. They broadly fall into five categories:

  • "Ooh, I’d never thought of that" – aspects of C# which were genuinely new to me
  • "Hell, yes!" – things I agree with 100%, and which will help developers a lot
  • "Um, I disagree" – points where Bill and I would go probably different routes, presumably due to different experiences and having worked in different contexts. (It’s possible that when put in the same context, we’d do the same thing, of course.)
  • "No, that’s technically incorrect" – a few areas which are outright wrong, or were correct for previous versions of the framework/CLR, but aren’t correct now
  • "That’s not what that term means" (or "that’s not the right term for the concept you’re trying to get across") – it should come as no surprise to regular readers that I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to terminology

The majority of my annotations are of the third category – disagreements. That’s not because I disagree with most of the book; it’s just that the second category is reserved for vehement agreement. I haven’t bothered to note every sentence that I’m just fine with.

The good news is that in areas where we disagree, Bill does an admirable job of stating his case. I disagree with some of his arguments – or I can give counter-examples, or merely place different value on some of the pros and cons – but the important thing is that the reasoning is there. If it doesn’t apply to your context, evaluate the advice accordingly.

It’s entirely reasonable for there to be quite a bit of disagreement, as much of the book is opinion. It’s obviously founded in a great deal of experience (and I should note that Bill has spent a lot more time as a professional C# developer than I have), but it’s still opinion. I rather wish that the book was a wiki, so that these items could be debated, amended etc, as per my dream book – I think that would make it even more valuable.

There are relatively few absolutely incorrect statements, and even on the terminology front it’s usually two things which have bugged me repeatedly. Bill uses "implicit properties" for "automatically implemented properties"; I’ve usually heard developers use the abbreviated form "automatic properties" but "implicit" is new to me. Likewise the book talks about "overriding ==" instead of "overloading ==" reasonably frequently. It’s a shame I was too busy with my own book to participate in the technical review for Effective C#, as I suspect that on at least some of these points, Bill would have been happy to amend the text accordingly. I shall, of course, transcribe my comments and send them to him.

Comment from Bill: I’ll make those corrections for the subsequent printings.

What’s missing?

There are some areas which I wish Bill had touched on or emphasized more. Topics such as numbers, text and chronological values could have been given some space as they frequently confuse folks (and are full of pitfalls; see Humanity: Epic Fail for more of my thoughts on this). I would personally have placed more importance on the mantra of "value types should be immutable" – it’s certainly talked about, but in the context of "preferring" atomic, immutable value types – and preferring value types over reference types in rather more situations than I’d personally use. In terms of importance in avoiding shooting yourself in the foot, making sure all structs are immutable comes near the top of the list in my view.

"More Effective C#" doesn’t cover those areas as far as I can tell from the table of contents, but it does go into details about generics and various aspects of C# 3 and LINQ, which are clearly part of any modern C# developer’s toolkit. I certainly intend to get hold of the book to see what else I have to learn from Bill.

I think it might have been nice to have a few sections at an even higher level than the specific items in Effective C#. Topics such as:

  • Don’t trust me: I don’t know your context. Even the smartest folks can only give advice in fairly general terms in books. Don’t apply this advice blindly; weigh up the arguments presented and work out how they apply to your actual code.
  • The importance of testing. It’s possible that this was mentioned, but I don’t recall it. Perhaps it’s a little on the opinionated side (see previous point…) but for significant code bases, testing should be deeply ingrained in whatever process you’re using. Note that although it’s worth trying to keep high standards in test code, it often has a very different look and feel to production code, and different "best practices" may apply.
  • Encouraging "working with the language" – if you find yourself fighting the language, you may discover you can keep winning battles but losing the war. Typically changing your design to represent more idiomatic C# will make life more pleasant for everyone.
  • Performance: how you might decide when and how much to care.

Very few of these would be C#-specific, of course – which may be why Bill left them out. You could easily fill a whole book like that, and it would probably be horrible to read – full of platitudes rather than concrete advice. I personally think there’s room for some discussion of this kind though.

Comment from Bill: The ultimate goal was to have the book be that ‘nice size’ you mention above. I agree that all of those concepts are important. I felt that many of these features were not C# specific (or even .NET specific) that I felt better covered elsewhere.  However, that ‘working with the language’ was one area where I feel that I do cover.  There are only a small number of negative titles (e.g "avoid" something or "do not" do something). In those cases, I tried to recommend alternatives where you would find yourself "working with the language".

Conclusion

I like Effective C# a lot. I like the fact that I’ve disagreed with a number of the points raised, and in disagreeing I’ve found myself thinking about why I disagree and in what situations each point of view may be appropriate. I worry a little about inexperienced readers who may be tempted to treat this (or any other book) as an ultimate truth to be quoted out of context and used to beat other developers into inappropriate solutions… but hopefully most readers won’t be like that.

Comment from Bill: I also hope that most readers avoid that. Thank you for pointing out that I’ve tried very hard to explain when my advice applies, and when it doesn’t.  That is critical.

It’s definitely encouraged me to try to write a somewhat similar book at some point… possibly not with the same organization, and probably dealing with some very different topics – but it’s good to see that it can work. Whether I can pull it off as well as Bill remains to be seen, of course.

I’ll look forward to reading More Effective C# – although my pile of books to review is groaning somewhat, and I should probably go through another of those first :)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Effective C# (2nd edition) by Bill Wagner”

  1. @Jaco: Absolutely. If nothing else, it’s *always* good to see how other people think about various design decisions. Challenge your existing practices where they differ from the advice given in the book – sometimes you’ll end up changing your mind, sometimes not. Either way, you’ll have had something to think about.

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  2. Your comments made me buy the book on my kindle to see if it would be appropriate to get a paper version from work.

    To everyone : Avoid the kindle version at all cost. Code samples are pictures, badly re-sized and either blurry or too small to read.

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  3. Your review made me buy the book on my kindle to see if it would be appropriate to buy the paper version for where i work.

    To everyone: Don’t get the kindle version (I don’t know about other electronic versions), the code samples are pictures and badly re-sized, the result being that they are either blurry or too small (due to picture resizing) and even when displayed with a size similar to pure text their contrast is really bad.

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  4. I bought the first edition of Effective C# and More Effective C# in the hope that the advice might be as invaluable as the advice contained in Joshua Bloch’s Effective Java. I have to say I was severely disappointed, not that the advice wasn’t valid, it was (though don’t follow it dogmatically as much of it only applies within certain contexts), but that sieving the wheat from the chaff in the excessively wordy explanations wore me out.
    Bloch’s book is a must read for anyone writing Java professionally, regrettably I can’t say the same of Wagner’s Effective C#, however, I’d welcome a future edition of the book if it followed Bloch’s editorial style.

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  5. @askingdev.com: It’s completely different to CLR via C#, which is much more focused on giving information rather than opinion. There *are* plenty of bits of advice in CLR via C#, but they’re not the primary focus.

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