Book Review

CSS Books
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

CSS: The Definitive Guide, 3rd ed. by Eric A. Meyer

Eric A. Meyer, a well-known Web designer, has written an authoritative reference in CSS: The Definitive Guide. The style is light, informal, and easy to read, but it contains a few annoying PCisms (fortunately, not very many). Despite the 2007 publication date, it only covers versions 1 and 2, and not the upcoming CSS 3.

Although it teaches CSS well, the book suffers a bit from being somewhat verbose (518 pages!) and disorganized. For example, on page 17, after spending several pages showing how to include @import in a <style> statement, with appropriate warnings, caveats and hacks, Meyer informs us that <style> attribute is actually deprecated and should not be used. So now what? Meyer doesn't say. The only way to find out is to read the HTML spec.

Occasionally, Meyer also veers off into what seems to be his real interest: XML, tempting the reader to wonder whether it might not be easier to learn CSS the old fashioned way, by stealing and modifying someone else's .css file. Chapter 10 in the book describes how to create “floats”. This is an example of some floating text. But it's not Meyer's fault. As a computer language, HTML ranks with BASIC as one of the ugliest ever created. Adding CSS to the HTML specification must have felt like putting a band-aid on a bleeding patient who has a concussion, high cholesterol, two broken legs, bad breath, and no health insurance. HTML is held back by the result of the need for simplicity and speed, and by the need to accommodate buggy browsers like IE6 and Netscape 4.x. For example, as Meyer points out, it's necessary to enclose @import statements inside comments to prevent some browsers from printing the statement on the screen instead of executing it. XHTML is even worse, with its "self-closing tags" like <link ... />. Stuff like this can make even BASIC programmers cringe.

Another problem: since it's an O'Reilly Press book, Meyer is limited to four colors: gray, light gray, black, and white. For programming books, the lack of color is not usually a problem; but HTML is an exception, and the discourse suffers from the lack of color. There are few suggestions about artistic style. Andy Clarke's book (reviewed at right) is better at describing the many browser-specific caveats that the spec won't tell you. But if you just need to learn basic CSS, along with a couple of tricks, this is an excellent book, and it's the book I use when I need to check some detail about CSS.

HTML, XHTML & CSS, 6th ed. by E. Castro

A primer on basic syntax of XHTML and CSS for beginners with little experience with computers and no prior experience creating Web pages. In color. Has many useful tips, and helpful tables at the end. However, the writing style is badly marred by the author's continual attempts at political correctness (especially in the later chapters), which makes reading this book an unpleasant task by anyone who cares about the English language.

Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design by Andy Clarke

This book delivers what the title promises: fine art. It's laid out like a typical art or architecture book, with lots of artistic photographs of random, unrelated items, along with colorful photos of well-designed web pages and snippets of CSS and XHTML that help the reader understand the general principles of using CSS to create them. The purpose is not to teach CSS, but to inspire web Two-column CSS layout is described in this book, but there are also many good tutorials on the net, such as designers to use CSS 2 and CSS 3 creatively to build web sites that are not only visually appealing, but also maintain accessibility on any platform. It succeeds spectacularly, encouraging visually-oriented but non-technically-savvy users to unleash their creativity through CSS. You can see an example of the style Clark promotes at (which actually is done entirely with tables instead of CSS). CSS can be learned easily enough from a book like Meyer's (reviewed at left) or from the W3C website (, then use this non-technical guide to give your pages pizazz, panache, and professionalism.

CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions by Andy Budd

Once you've gotten oriented with CSS and XHTML, read CSS Mastery to become fully acquainted with the real tricks. This book doesn't pretend to be complete; fonts, for example, are omitted entirely, and the section on forms doesn't discuss how to actually send data to the server. But its coverage of browser quirks and CSS tricks, including rounded boxes, tabs, navigation bars, CSS tables, and multi-column layout, is more thorough and easier to follow than most other books on this subject.

The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web

Outstanding book on the principles of graphic design. Discusses CSS files from the authors' Zen Garden website, explains what makes them beautiful, and how changing them in various ways would make them worse. The level of presentation is far above the high-school / color wheel level of some other books on web design. As a tutorial on graphic design for those of us who lack the interior decorator gene, this book is first-rate. Assumes the reader is already familiar with XHTML and CSS.

The Design of Sites: Patterns for Creating Winning Web Sites, 2nd Ed

Good advice about usability for designers of commercial Web sites, but incredibly verbose and lacking in technical detail.