Are Technical Books Dead?

Like many network engineers, and many others in every field of technology, my bookshelves are overflowing with giant tomes on different areas of my chosen field. Cisco Press alone takes up a sizeable amount of my shelf real estate, with everything from introductions to networking through to heavyweight CCIE texts. Overall, my collection spans 3 bookcases, and a bunch of eBooks to boot.

When I first started learning about networking, I felt that my best chance was to pore over every page of ‘The Book’ for whatever topic it was I happened to be interested in. A great example of ‘The Book’ is Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography, highly recommended (and rightfully so) by many in the field of security and cryptography. Another is The C Programming Language, by Kernighan and Ritchie, the bible of the language from which many (including myself) learned to use it.

Of course, there are many problems with relying on a single book to teach you everything you need to know on a topic. It may have biases; not cover all the areas you really need to know (which is difficult to judge before you know a topic on some level) or not cover them in enough depth. In some cases, there may also be errors that slow your learning down considerably, though these are usually not very common.

However, these are all true of any method of dispensing information, not just books. Relying on a single source for all of your information about anything is typically a bad idea, if you wish to understand and appreciate the topic in any significant depth. Much like reading one newspaper isn’t the best way to get a balanced view on the day’s events, reading only Cisco Press books for example will certainly give you a Cisco-centric view of the networking world.

There are a few challengers to technical books – video, learning apps and audio being prime candidates. But what has most frequently sounded the death knell of the traditional technical book is online documentation, and there’s good reasoning for this argument. It’s searchable, very easy to frequently update, and able to contain a level of detail and specifics that would be excluded from all but the mightiest printed tome.

With the advent of excellent online documentation on many topics, is there still value in technical books? I would say yes, absolutely. Although they are now far from the accepted single source of wisdom they used to be for many topics, having a well thought-through collection of points and information that is designed to get you to understand a concept from start to finish will always have value to those trying to take on new subjects.

One area in which traditional technical books will increasingly struggle to compete with online documentation however is updates. Barring new editions and their associated required repurchase, once a book is out, it’s out. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasising for books on fast-moving topics such as container networking; even if a book came out this year, there is a good chance a lot of its contents have been superseded by the time you read it. If the intent of the book is to dispense the latest and greatest, this is a big problem.

These two factors combined make the traditional thick technical book best for fundamental concepts of the field or topic, or those likely to change slowly. For example, in the case of Applied Cryptography, the underlying principles and their reasoning are taught very well, and these won’t be changing any time soon. This makes the book a great investment regardless of what the next security start-up or firewall appliance update does, as the fundamentals will always help you understand what they are really doing and the implications of doing so.

Unless the learner is very well-grounded in the field already, I always like to recommend an in-depth book to gain an understanding rather than online documentation and articles, which by their nature are typically more ad-hoc and amenable to the learner jumping around to find the specific answer they need at that point. When starting a topic, you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s at that point that the depth and structure of a technical book can really shine by making you learn important parts that you may have assumed weren’t necessary.

But again, this is a matter of preference: not everyone wants or needs a deep level of understanding on a certain topic, and very often a single answer to a single question is sufficient to solve the immediate problem. Although it’s not terribly helpful to give someone who needs a single answer a giant tome on the subject, I would also argue that in the long run it is often not very useful to give someone who needs a deep answer the Wikipedia page, for example. A little knowledge, as they say, can be a dangerous thing.

Although the day of the technical book as the one source of truth on a given subject has passed, they are still very valuable to understanding and learning a topic deeply. Despite apps, videos and audio, I have, as of today, yet to find a method of absorbing information as effectively as concentrated effort spent on a well-written book. I’m sure that some of that is due to my own preferences and style of learning, but the sheer amount of information contained in a good book to me outclasses any other method I’ve tried.

The benefits I’ve received over the years of reading deep technical books have been well worth the time invested, even if at some difficult points (such as some of the concepts in Applied Cryptography) it was a struggle to understand them as well as I thought I should. Although they demand a weighty time investment, to me there is no real substitute.

So, to all those out there seeking to get their deep understanding of a subject onto paper so the rest of us can benefit from it: I thank you, and you’ll always have loyal readers – me being one of them.

1 thought on “Are Technical Books Dead?”

  1. A question for future blog entries: Who has the best on-line training? What on-line places have you found to be particularly helpful? What manufacturers have the best on-line help facilities? Etc.

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