Sunday, September 16, 2012

Books and Covers

Last week, a man from another department looked at my desk and remarked that computer books never show computers on their covers. I looked at my desk: the most conspicuous book was Perfect Software by Gerald Weinberg, with a cover showing white cumulus clouds against a blue sky. Next to it was Effective Perl Programming, a cover showing oyster shells, one with a pearl. I turned over Beautiful Code: Vs of birds. Then I looked at the shelves. It was obvious that the many books by O'Reilly Associates would not contradict him, for most of those covers show animals. Modern Perl had what might have been a monitor, with the Perl sigils @, %, and $; but also, as he pointed out, a blue butterfly.

On a later inventory, I found three books with a computer or an aspect of one depicted:
And I'd have sworn that my copy of  Hennessy and Patterson's Computer Architecture showed a circuit diagram, but I'd have sworn wrong. That edition has a Corinthian capital on it.

It was surprising to have someone 30 years younger point out something quite obvious that I had just never thought about. Some publishers use a trade dress that has nothing to do with the subject:  O'Reilly Associates animals and Manning's clip art are examples of this.  Other publishers favor an austere cover with no art, as Prentice-Hall did for The C Programming Language. Some well-known texts have whimsical designs by which they are known: the dragon book, the Cinderella book, the wizard book.

There is also the problem of determining what a computer looks like. When I started to work with computers, they were generally the size of refrigerators, and one controlled them from a VDT with green or amber phosphors. If you walk into the server room today and see something the size of a PDP-11, or MV/7800, it is probably a disk array. Even personal computers and their peripherals have changed considerably in appearance over the years, and the hefty 17-inch monitor that was the envy of a department in 1995 is obsolescent now.

The software changes more slowly. My old "camel book"  omits a good deal that has happened in Perl since it was published, but is still a handy reference for standard functions and older modules. The older edition of C.J. Date's Introduction to Database Systems still does a good job of setting out the fundamentals of relational databases.  Publishers are better off, then, sticking with species that will be recognizable a few years down the road.

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