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  • Diomidis Spinellis. Book review: LaTeX for Linux: a vade mecum. ACM Computing Reviews, 41(3):154, March 2000. Green Open Access

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Book review: LATEX for Linux: a Vade Mecum

Diomidis Spinellis
University of the Aegean

Bernice S. Lipkin
LaTeX for Linux: a Vade Mecum
Springer-Verlag, New York Inc, New York, NY, 1999
568 pp. ISBN 0-387-98708-8

The popularity of open-source operating systems such as Linux and FreeBSD seems to be breathing new life into software that has been traditionally used under Unix. The documentation of open-source software is sometimes terse, cryptic, and out of date; users, after all, can always read the source code to obtain all the answers they want. However, powerful desktop PCs, one-click software distribution over the web, and standardized user-friendly binary-packaged operating systems and applications have created a new breed of less sophisticated end-users that have replaced the multi-user VAX administering priesthood that was intimately familiar with FTP, disk partitions, and configurable makefiles. Publishers quickly responded with reference and tutorial-style books that introduced and dissected topics ranging from awk to X-Windows. "LaTeX for Linux" predictably targets Linux adopters interested about the LaTeX document formatting system. It is geared towards novices covering however the whole breadth of LaTeX commands. Little material of the book is Linux-specific; one gets the impression that Linux is in the title to help the book ride the Linux bandwagon.

The book's first part describes the operation of LaTeX and its styles. The reader is then walked through an example based on a practice file and the use of the Emacs editor to modify its contents. The third part outlines LaTeX commands, environments, and macros. The next three parts deal with formatting in text, math, and box mode. They include exhaustive descriptions of font handling, lists, floating objects, footnotes, and cross-references. Part seven describes how graphics and pictures can be created and included into documents - a difficult task in most markup languages. The next two parts deal with LaTeX facilities that allow the automatic creation of bibliographic references, tables of contents, and indices, as well as the specification of the generated output via style sheets. An appendix describes how HTML documents can be converted to and from LaTeX documents. A list of references (mostly to files that are part of the standard LaTeX distribution) and a glossary complement the book's contents.

Until the advent of StarOffice, Linux users could not run the so called office productivity tools. Document formatting involved using an editor to create text with embedded commands of the cryptic troff or TeX markup languages. Macro packages for these languages such as "ms" and LaTeX improve their usability, provided the user has access to a cookbook-style guide explaining how to perform most common formatting tasks. LaTeX for Linux covers this need giving detailed descriptions of most LaTeX commands, examples of their use, and previews of the resulting output. It also includes material on ancillary concepts such as the Emacs editor, previewing, printing, graphic manipulation programs, and many add-on packages. The information and detail provided is often overwhelming; novice LaTeX readers would probably skip large parts of the book on a first pass through its contents and use the book as a reference once they have mastered the essentials. Many concepts are used before being introduced making the text in question difficult to understand.

Document formatting using markup languages still has an edge over "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" (WYSIWYG) word-processing packages. As Brian Kernighan famously expressed, the problem with WYSIWYG systems is that what you see is all you get. Unfortunately, Lipkin does little to elucidate how LaTeX can be a more productive document preparation environment than its WYSIWYG competition. Readers who have used WYSIWYG packages will not be impressed by the complicated series of commands needed to perform many simple tasks. Given the concrete productivity and document quality profits that can be reaped by using a declarative document formatting style based on a system such as LaTeX, some evangelizing from Lipkin would clearly benefit potential adopters. Furthermore, the use of a markup language entails more than formatting text; Lipkin does a disservice to readers by not including some basic guidelines on good typography.

The text is written in an informal conversational style that can sometimes become irritating. While reading the book it quickly becomes obvious that the text has not been professionally edited for grammar, consistency, and style. It is also unfortunate that a book dealing with typesetting is not setting an example for it. Excessive use of white space often obscures the structure within a page, the style used for headings can kindly be described as eccentric, line spacing and font size vary inconsistently within the book, while the presentation of markup and its results would benefit from a more creative approach. Given the large number of LaTeX commands, packages, and their possible uses each new book on the topic provides new insights and can be a useful reference source. I would not recommend "LaTeX for Linux" as the first or primary reference for LaTeX, but it is possible that readers will find it a useful companion for many typesetting tasks.