Books I Don't Recommend if You're Starting Out

Keith Casey’s recent post on a book recommendations got me thinking. I get asked what books I recommend. I whole-heartedly agree with his first recommendation. The Pragmatic Programmer sits on my desk and is often in my laptop bag. I reach for it if I have five minutes and want to flip through something technical without having to load up my Google Reader.

Not on his list is the Passionate Programmer. I highly recommend this book to anyone working in the industry. I’ve reviewed it on Amazon, feel free to check that out for more information.

But this post isn’t about what I recommend, it’s what I don’t. There are two books that Keith recommends that I no longer recommend off the bat to programmers. PEAA and Refactoring. Both are excellent books, but neither should be read by people starting out.

Why? The books are both excellent. I’ve read both. I own both. I do recommend them, some of the time. Both are geared toward programmers that already know how to program. Both contain a wealth of information which, in the right hands, can take the development of the reader to the next level.

But they also contain information that can be abused tremendously. For example, Active Record in it’s abused, single-world form of ActiveRecord has caused a tremendous about of scaling issues. All because it was a Fowler endorsed method for dealing with data in a database. Developers without an understanding of its limitations started copying what Rails did and in the process mixed business logic and database logic into the same object. What happens when your data needs to be stored in a flat file or a nosql style database? Your business logic is now all tied up in your database and its painful to extract that and retrofit your application to be scalable.

Of course, since you have Refactoring you can fix that. Right? Well, sort of. Patterns and refactoring go hand in hand. Ideally, refactoring code should lead to some more understandable, reusable code; something that’s more easily explained to another developer. Patterns fill the bill. Nowhere in Refactoring or Joshua Kerievsky’s Refactoring to Patterns will you find anything about pattern hoping. To fix an improper use of ActiveRecord by moving to another pattern, however, you end up doing exactly that.

Couple that with the sweater string issue. We’ve all had a loose string on a sweater, right? You give it a tug instinctively to get rid of it, and before you know it a hem in gone and the sweater is ruined. Refactoring, in the wrong hands, causes the same thing.

Well, I need to extract this logic out. Next this piece needs to be mutable. I should inject this object so I can replace it out later if I need to. And so on, and so on, ad infinitum.

Both patterns and refactoring are powerful tools, but not in the hands of a novice. Both books should be read, but not when you’re starting out. Get your hands on Pragmatic and Passionate, spend some time looking for a mentor to help guide you down the right path. Once you get your feet under you as a programmer, then start learning about the mechanics of patterns and refactoring. Once you’re to that point, PEAA and Refactoring are great material.