Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Linux Command Line Is A Very Appealing Story

William E. Shotts, Jr.'s The Linux Command Line is a delightful read and a book you can hand to junior colleague or friend with more limited Unix shell exposure and be confident that they come back significantly shell-wiser and probably happier.

For almost as long as 'Linux' has been a somewhat familiar term in IT circles, there has been a constant effort to wrap the system in some sort of graphical interface to make the system 'user friendly'. The result is that the run of the mill Linux user is seldom if ever exposed to the classical Unix shell command line interface unless they actively seek it out. There is no shortage of literature describing how to be productive on Linux using the various graphical interfaces either.

With this context in mind, it's quite refreshing to find a book that is written with the purpose of pointing out that the real power and productivity gains of swithcing from something else to Linux (or other free unixlike systems) lies in tapping the power of the shell command line and shell scripting.

The book quite sensibly starts out with the premise that modern Linux users most likely have learned to use their computers mainly or even exclusively through grapical interfaces, and gently introduces the user to the shell via a series of bite-sized but insightful examples and excercises, starting from a few simple commands and navigating the file system hierarchy.

The pace picks up gradually from there, with explanations and tips on the workings of the Unixy environment and how to tailor it to your own preferences, useful administration commands, a smacking of regular expressions and various other basic building blocks that generally find a useful application within the first few pages of their first mention. The reader is instructed early on that the book is intended to be read from beginning to end like a novel, and when you follow that instruction the narrative and buildup works very well. At the two-thirds point in the book, the user is instructed in how to compile their first C program, a task that isn't quite as difficult as may sound if you pick a sensible chunk of code to start with.

The fourth and last section of the book (about third of the total by my eyeballing) is a very well written tutorial on writing useful shell scripts, which touches on a number of shell features and may very well even be a useful refresher for users with a little more shell experience than the intended primary target audience.

Although the author warns that the book is entirely Linux-centric, the BASH shell that is really the centrepiece in the narrative is in fact available on all modern Unixes and unixlike systems, so The Linux Command Line is in fact a quite useful introduction to the shell for users of BSDs and even, I imagine, MacOS users who want to see what can be done outside the wholly graphical interface.

Unix greybeards will find little that's entirely new here, but the book is a delightful read and you can hand it to a junior colleague or friend with more limited Unix shell exposure and be confident that they come back significantly shell-wiser and probably happier.

Title: The Linux Command Line
Author: William E. Shotts, Jr.
Publisher: No Starch Press, Inc.
ISBN-10: 1-59327-389-4
ISBN-13: 978-1-59327-389-7
Published January 2012, 480 pages

Available at better bookstores everywhere and directly from the publisher at