Thinking in Java

by Bruce Eckel

Cover image

Publisher: Prentice Hall
Copyright: 2006
Printing: October 2009
ISBN: 0-13-187248-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 1461

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Thinking in Java has gone through multiple editions. This review is of the 4th edition, which is targetted at Java 5 (with some minor updates for Java 6, released as it was going to press).

Prior to reading this book, I'd never written code from scratch in Java and had never learned anything about Java in a structured fashion. My CS degrees come before the era of ubiquitous Java; the most I'd ever done with the language was look over and make some minor fixes to code other people had written, using general programming knowledge. I choose this book as my introduction because I was looking for a ground-up introduction with good reviews and was avoiding books that contained a printed version of the Java library documentation. I can get that myself on-line.

I kept a set of notes on my impressions of the Java language itself separately and will not get into that here. This is, instead, a review of Thinking in Java as a book and as a training tool for someone who wants to pick up the language.

First off, this is a remarkably well-titled book, much more so than the typical programming language book. Eckel is not just teaching Java as one programming language among many. He tries hard to teach the reader to think in Java, with a lot of attention to idiomatic use of the language and natural ways to use its expressiveness. This is exactly what I was looking for — I don't want to just write C or Perl in Java syntax — and I was very satisfied with the result. The book is also very heavy on source code examples; this is much of the reason why it's 1,461 pages. Eckel illustrates everything with Java code, generally complete functioning short programs. Even exploratory musings and experiments are implemented as Java code. I don't think there's any significant thought in this book that isn't shown in both text and in explained Java code.

Eckel has also clearly put significant effort into choosing good examples and designing his sample programs. I have some past (mild) experience with object-oriented design, and a lot of experience with higher-level system design, and I was satisfied and occasionally intrigued by the object structures and design tips that Eckel provides. He uses design pattern language heavily, but not in a confusing way, and he takes some time to explain typical design patterns and illustrate them repeatedly. This is a solid introduction to good object-oriented program design as well as an introduction to Java.

One oddity of this book, though, is that Eckel introduces the language from the ground up, starting with syntax and basic types, and is very careful not to use any concepts before he introduces them. The result is a very thorough introduction to the Java language, but it means that it takes 900 pages (!) before Eckel introduces I/O and the possibility of writing a useful program based on just the information in the book. This is for entirely sound conceptual reasons: I/O in Java relies on lots of concepts, like exceptions and generics, that require extensive introduction and discussion. However, it does mean that through well more than half of a monumental tome the reader is learning the language through rather artificial programs.

I have extensive prior programming background and a high tolerance for more abstract examples (I have a master's degree in software theory), so I could deal with this, but even with that background I was starting to feel like my head was getting too full and too crowded with concepts without being able to make them concrete. It probably would have helped to work through some of the exercises, but I dislike exercises that aren't grounded in some problem I personally want to solve. If you're someone who only learns languages through practical application, this approach to teaching the language may drive you nuts, and you may want to look for another book that compromises conceptual progression to get you started faster.

Related to this, Thinking in Java is not about the standard library. It's about the language, and the vast majority of this book is focused directly on the language level: inheritance, information hiding, generics, exceptions, introspection, concurrency, annotations, serialization, and so forth. The only parts of the standard library that Eckel covers in depth are the container classes, I/O, and a somewhat odd and misplaced final chapter on Swing. There is nothing about databases, essentially nothing about web applications or containers, no network programming, and very little in the way of practical, applied problems. As you might guess from the combination of that limitation of scope and the length of this book, that means it is extremely comprehensive; I doubt there are many corners of the basic language semantics, including around generics, that Eckel leaves unexplored. This is exactly what I wanted (I know how to read library documentation myself and all language core libraries start looking mostly the same after you've programmed in five or six languages), but it's very different from the typical approach of a programming language book. Don't be surprised.

This biggest problem with Thinking in Java from my perspective is that it defers many interesting topics to Eckel's web pages and to free companion books and material that is supposedly found there, to the point of advertising that on the cover. This is a good way to allow the reader to explore extra topics that are of specific interest while skipping others, provided that one actually delivers on that promise. However, Eckel's web site is dire. The first time I looked at it earlier this year I was unable to find most of the supplemental material the book promises is there, and now www.mindview.net doesn't resolve in DNS. I've found copies of some of that material hosted elsewhere in Google searches, but this is a rather frustrating experience if one was relying on that supplemental material to fill in the gaps. And the book is clearly written expecting people to go look at the web materials; Eckel refers to them probably a hundred times over the course of the book.

Less of a serious problem, and more of a quirk, is the closing chapter on Swing. This chapter really doesn't fit much with the book. I suppose Eckel felt obligated to put in at least one chapter on some concrete applied topic (I personally would have preferred databases be that topic, but oh well), and it does serve a useful purpose in showing how concurrency, inner classes, inheritance, and introspection all work together in a significant Java library. But it's not presented as just an example, and it fits in oddly with the rest of the book. It also has an inexplicable middle section about Flash programming. I ended up mostly skimming this. But this isn't much of a flaw in the book; if one ignores 100 pages out of 1,450, that's not much of a loss.

Eckel comes from a C++ background (he was a founding member of the C++ standardization committee), which shows up most prominently in the generics chapter. It's a solid, thorough introduction to Java generics, but it also has an extensive exploration of all the problems with the Java erasure model and many, many examples of the things that one would find intuitive from C++ that don't work the same way in Java. If you come from a C++ background, this is quite possibly useful; if, like me, you don't care about C++, it's at best mildly interesting and gets a touch tedious. There are a few other places where Eckel pokes surprisingly sharp sticks at the Java designers, but taken in context I think this is a quirk of the book's conversational style (which is otherwise a feature).

Eckel's love of Python is also somewhat entertaining (particularly the long advertisement for Python in the introductory chapters of a book on Java), but has little impact on the book. I think the largest drawback of it is that all the examples in this book are tested using a Python framework, which isn't so much a problem with them as a lost opportunity. They're annotated with metadata used by Eckel's Python test framework, and in a Java book I would have been much more interested in a good Java test framework built on top of something like JUnit. Oh well.

Overall, this is a very solid book which, despite being enormous, does not feel pointlessly padded. It's thorough and exhaustive on its topic, but there's a point to nearly everything in here. It was also exactly the Java book I wanted: an introduction to the language, built on a firm foundation of object-oriented program design, with discussion and pointers on how to think idiomatically in the language and use it to its fullest potential, and without mindlessly reproducing the standard library documentation. If that's also what you're looking for in a Java book, I recommend it highly. Just know going in what sort of book you're getting, since its pacing and order of presentation may frustrate some learning styles.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-10-06

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21