Back in the day when Ruby wasn’t particularly popular outside Japan there was only one book in English about Ruby - “Programming Ruby”, affectionately called the Pickaxe by most Rubyists. Those day are long gone now. Ruby on Rails propelled Ruby into the mainstream and quite a few books on Ruby (and Rails) have been published over the past five or so years. With so many books to choose from developers often find it hard to pick up the right book.
In this post I’ll share with you my thoughts on the Ruby books that I’ve found to be the most interesting and valuable. Feel free to disagree with me, after all this is a highly subjective matter.
Every saga has a beginning, every journey has a first step, every programming language has a first book…
A book that teaches programming to absolute beginners with Ruby as the implementation language. I haven’t read this book (only excerpts from it), but I’ve used it as a gift for several acquaintances of mine, with the desire to learn to program. All of them were frustrated by other introductory books they’ve read and all of them praised “Learn to Program” for its immense clarity, engaging and enjoyable style and comprehensible examples.
“The Well Grounded Rubyist” is a thoroughly revised and updated edition of the older book Ruby for Rails (which was 90% Ruby and 10% Rails). In this new book, author David A. Black moves beyond Rails and presents a broader view of Ruby. It covers Ruby 1.9 in great detail, unlike many introductory texts that tend to offer only superficial coverage of many topics.
Starting with the basics, The Well-Grounded Rubyist explains Ruby objects and their interactions from the ground up. In the middle chapters, the book turns to an examination of Ruby’s built-in, core classes, showing the reader how to manipulate strings, numbers, arrays, ranges, hashes, sets, and more. Regular expressions get attention, as do file and other I/O operations. At 500+ pages it’s a bit of a hefty tome, but it’s definitely worth reading it.
Reference books are not usually the biggest fun to read, but they tend to cover everything a language has to offer and we generally keep them close. Their value increases with the increase of our knowledge of a particular language.
Co-authored by Ruby’s creator Matz this is without a doubt the best analysis of the languages. Everything you need to know is explained in a crisp and easy to comprehend manner. The thing I liked most about the book was the depth in which all the topics were discussed - given the superficial coverage of some topics (such as encodings) in other books, this book really stands out. The book is full of examples and artwork by why the lucky stiff, and covers both Ruby 1.8 and 1.9. The chapters on proc & clojures and metaprogramming were particularly strong. The books is geared mostly towards experienced programmers who are new to Ruby. If you’re one of them - it’s unlikely you’ll find a better starting point in your journey to Ruby mastery.
Co-authored by the Pragmatic Programmers themselves (Dave Thomas & Andy Hunt) this was the very first English book on Ruby (and arguably an instrument in Ruby’s international success). The first edition of the books is freely available on-line, but it’s very outdated so I wouldn’t recommend you to read it. The book has two parts
- a tutorial part and a reference part.
The tutorial part is very well written and quite readable. It’s geared towards less experienced developers and you’ll not find as detailed coverage of the topics as in “The Ruby Programming Language”. You’ll, however, find full coverage of everything new in Ruby 1.9 - the book includes all the new and changed syntax and semantics introduced since Ruby 1.8 and information about the new parameter passing rules, local variable scoping in blocks, fibers, multinationalization, and the new block declaration syntax.
The reference part of the book includes a description of all the standard library modules, a complete reference for all built-in classes and modules (including all the new and changed methods introduced by Ruby 1.9).
I’m not sure we need the whole Ruby standard library documentation on paper anymore in the age of the Internet, but I guess some people will find it helpful. I just feel that the additional documentation simply made the book heavier (and possibly pricier).
Intermediate Ruby books
Once you’ve read a reference or a beginner’s Ruby book you might want to move to some book that illustrates common Ruby style, techniques and idioms.
“Ruby Best Practices” is aimed at programmers who want to use Ruby as experienced Rubyists do. Written by the developer of the Ruby project Prawn, this concise book explains how to design beautiful APIs and domain-specific languages with Ruby, as well as how to work with functional programming ideas and techniques that can simplify your code and make you more productive. You’ll learn how to write code that’s readable and expressive.
The latest (and one of the greatest) Ruby books I’ve read. The book pretty much has the same aim as “Ruby Best Practices”, but covers a lot more ground and is generally a lighter and more enjoyable read. Russ Olsen has a very particular writing style that turns even the most boring subjects into interesting discussions. All chapters feature some real world examples of the concepts introduced, and a discussion of potential pitfalls.
Very highly recommended second Ruby book.
A most enjoyable rendition of a generally boring subject by Russ Olsen. “Design Patterns in Ruby” explores 14 of the classical GoF design patterns and compares the canonical implementation of the patterns to idiomatic Ruby versions of them. Every pattern features a discussion of common use cases, pitfalls and real world usages.
The book also builds on top of the original patterns by adding a couple of new ones like DSL and Convention over configuration.
Without a doubt one of the best Design pattern books and a must read for all Ruby hackers. You don’t need any previous knowledge of design patterns prior to reading this book, but there are a lot of references to the classic GoF text so you might want to read it beforehand.
Advanced Ruby books
At some point you might want to explore some of the darker corners of Ruby.
The ability to modify programs at runtime is one the greatest strengths of Ruby, but it seems to frighten a lot of people (which is understandable given the constant usage of fancy words like eigenclass). If you want to sharpen your Ruby metaprogramming skills - this is the one true book.
Believe it or not currently JRuby seems to be best Ruby implementation around. If you’re interested in using JRuby you’d do well to learn more about the integration with the JVM that JRuby provides as well as the various new deployment options that JRuby introduces.
This book was written by the core JRuby developers and it’s absolutely excellent. Clear and concise writing style, lots of useful examples.
There are certainly other great Ruby books around that I haven’t read, but I guess that at some point reading books is just not as helpful as writing real code. I do believe, however, that even experienced developers can benefit from a good programming book.
So, which Ruby books that I’ve missed would you recommend?