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Introductory internet books

This page reviews those books which are aimed at people who don't know a lot about the internet and want a wee book to tell them what to do. Such books, if done well, can also be of interest to people who are familiar with the internet already.

Reviewed on this page:
-- Teach Yourself The Internet for Students
-- The Internet: The Rough Guide
-- Mastering the Internet
-- Mining the Internet
-- (Other reviews)


 
 

Chris Wright (1999), Teach Yourself The Internet for Students, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

This is a cheap but slightly pointless book, cashing in on the lucrative market of young people and their nervous guardians who think that it is probably a good idea to buy student handbooks about things.

Of course, the internet 'for students' is very similar to the internet for anybody. This book spends the bulk of its pages listing sites for particular subject areas, but these seem like the result of some cursory web searches, and some of the selections (and omissions) seem a bit mad. Maybe Chris Wright asked colleagues in other disciplines to suggest sites to him, which would seem sensible, but if so then poor Chris Wright would seem to have been stitched up by his not very well informed mates. Students would be much better advised to do their own searches, or visit sites recommended by their own departments, than bother with this lacklustre directory.

The author -- whose other books include Teach Yourself Java -- makes other mistakes, like trying to explain the technical side of how the internet works, in terms of TCP/IP protocols, on the first main page! This unneccessary exposition is an early clue to the author's lack of judgment. There's no point making beginners feel uncomfortable because they don't understand something which is superfluous to the experience of using the internet anyway.

On the plus side, much of the basic info is OK (but would probably be provided free to most students who wanted it anyway). The summary of ways in which you can make precise requests in search engines is handy (although you can get specific advice just by clicking 'help' in your search engine of choice).

Overall, though, Angus Kennedy's Rough Guide to the Internet (see below) is better -- for students, or anyone -- and it costs less, so there's not much point in buying The Internet for Students.


 

1999 edition is pictured, but the 2000 edition is just as good. Prices here refer to the 2000 edition.

 

Angus J. Kennedy (every year), The Internet: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, London.

This little volume has been cleverly marketed as the one book that everybody needs to buy to get on with this internet thingy, and it sits in big racks in supermarkets and other places which don't usually sell books, let alone computer books. Thankfully it is jolly good, and being now in its fourth edition, it has been able to build and amend its content to as near perfection as you could reasonably expect for £6 (US $9.95).

The second half of the book is a directory of key websites, intelligently selected and annotated. But before that, you get more than 200 pages of very good information about the internet in general, its technologies, how to use browse the web, how to use e-mail, and even a very simple guide to HTML, with all the pointers you need to put up your own website. (At one point it even starts telling you how to set up your own web server -- described as 'remarkably simple' -- which seems to be going a bit far).

It all kicks off with a really excellent Frequently Asked Questions section with well-honed, interestingly-written answers to a load of questions from 'What's a domain name?' to 'Isn't it run by the Pentagon and the CIA?'.

So, quite simply, this is the best introductory internet book, better than some that cost up to five times as much, and -- as indicated above -- would be a much better way to teach yourself the internet for students than Teach Yourself The Internet For Students.


 
 

Ian Shircore and Richard Lander (1999), Mastering the Internet, Orion Business Books, London.

A business-oriented book which starts with internet basics and moves through ways in which the net might be good for your organisation. The stuff about intranets and extranets would be quite good if you were a businessperson who had to start thinking about these facilities. I thought the book would be diverting to look at because it contains a section called 'Seven ways to make a fortune via the internet' -- which I'll come back to in a minute.

The book is written in a good-humoured style which suggests the authors aren't taking things too seriously, which sounds pleasant, but has a disastrous payoff when they manage to make errors like getting the URL of Yahoo wrong (on p.36, p.42 and p.124 -- in a book called Mastering the Internet?!). People who enjoy disasters of that nature will also be pleased to see the the authors have picked up a quotations dictionary and tried to add a touch of class by putting 'literary' quotations at the tops of chapters. Does adding E.M. Forster's famous "Only connect" at the start of a chapter on e-commerce make it more clever, or more stupid-looking? You decide.

It's a bit of a tragedy for books like this that they go out of date so quickly. But the authors are also to blame, for writing about things that will so obviously change by the time their book is published. For example, their advice about shopping online for CDs (in this 1999 book, which I'm reviewing in 1999), which is all about the shiny discs being posted across the Atlantic to the UK, is definitely not now the best way to get CDs cheaply (or quickly) since the advent of sites like Audiostreet.

As for the 'Seven ways to make a fortune via the internet'... well, they are good suggestions for websites, that would provide a useful service and might make money. Each of the suggestions involves setting up a fully-fledged business, though, so readers who wanted to learn how to become a millionaire just by clicking their mouse a few times would be disappointed.


 
 

Brian Clegg (1999), Mining the Internet: Information Gathering and Research on the Net, Kogan Page, London.

I was ready to look disdainfully at this book, which the title suggests might be one of those entirely unnecessary publications which explain search engines at great length, even though search engines are self-explanatory (especially if you click 'help'). But in fact it's an excellent guide to the various ways you can find out about things using the internet, and would be a very good introduction to this for anyone who isn't very well versed in it already. It's well-written, and good on lots of little details and tips that aren't obvious. In particular, it covers lots of ways you could find out about things where search engines haven't been, or wouldn't be, very effective. Good.


 
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