Cascading Style Sheets: Separating Content From Presentation, Owen Briggs, Steven Champeon, Eric Costello & Matt Patterson

Glasshaus, 2002, 289 pages, C$54.99 tpb, ISBN 1-904151-04-3

Friends and family have known for a long time that I’m not a completely normal person, but even they started to worry when I started raving about how much fun it was to read a technical CSS manual. Granted, in the past few weeks I’ve become more and more prone to irrational bursts of excitement for highly technical books in the field of web design, but even I have to admit at being disturbed by realizing that I was actually curling up with a CSS handbook as “fun reading.”

The CSS handbook in question was Glasshaus’s Cascading Style Sheets: Separating Content From Presentation, a sober-looking reference book about the emerging standard of, yes, Cascading Style Sheets.

From the onset, any web reference book must justify its existence, moreso than any other type of technical book; given the web, wouldn’t it be more responsible to publish the stuff in HTML rather than kill trees for it? Don’t we already have far too much paper in our offices?

The first and foremost reason justifying paper web books is that people do expect to buy books, even as they have come to regard HTML content as something that should be free. For authors, that alone makes it worthwhile to write a book or two; the thought that some faithful web readers (such as myself, I suppose) might plunk down a few bucks to read real physical words must be very tempting. I suppose that posterity might have something to do with it too.

But beyond these considerations, one must admit that there is indeed a place for paper documentation even in the most cyber-connected of fields. It’s still not a terribly pleasant thing to read long narratives on screen, it can be a pain to switch between multiple windows on-screen and it’s simply not practical to bring a computer to read, say, on the bus. Or on the couch. Or in the bathroom.

So CSS: SCFP is optimized in function of what would best fit on paper. It provides ample contextual information to instruct us in the not-so-subtle reasons why web content should be separated from its presentation as well as the historical and technological reasons driving this innovation. As narrative, it’s a joy to read in paper format, at our leisure. The author make a reasonable case for re-thinking the way we conceive web pages, and this change of perspective alone -stemming from the proper use of CSS- will enrich and enhance any web developer’s subsequent projects.

This is followed by a series of entertaining and informative tutorials that you can either read along, or practice at your computer. This is an efficient way to train, as there is a clear difference between paper-theory and electronic-practice. The “Boxes, boxes, boxes” chapter itself might actually be worth the price of the book for all CSS-developers that are serious about doing table-less design.

The third section might also prove to be invaluable, as it gives some hard-won advice on how to deal with outdated browsers. This section might be the most immediately useful, but I think that it will also be the one that will be most quickly made obsolete. Web-things changing so quickly, it’s also the least relevant part of the book even as it hits the streets. One can even feel the size restrictions imposed by the editor as the authors refer us to web sites for more updated information.

Still, CSS: SCFP is a great book for web design professionals looking for more in-depth information. I don’t think there’s anything in here that can’t be found on-line somewhere, but the tutorials are unusually clear and grouped together in one handy package. The first contextual part of the book is inspirational enough to warrant frequent re-reads. As a tree-killing object, this book makes its existence worthwhile.

In fact, I’d be so bold as to suggest that so far, CSS: SCFP is the only essential paper CSS reference you need. It’s a book designed with some thought, containing all the information that deserves to be printed on paper. Sure, fine, it doesn’t contain a complete listing of all CSS-2 properties, but frankly you might as well bookmark the W3C specs and use that as a reference tool. This book contains context, invaluable tutorials and enough handy hints to deserve a place on your physical bookmarks shelf.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, writing about this book has made me want to read all over again.

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