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After reading Drupal 6 Javascript and jQuery (Matt Butcher, Pact Publishing), I gained a new appreciation for writers attempting to expound on a one specific aspect of Drupal development. jQuery, for example, can be used by nearly every layer of Drupal, from module building to theming, from the file system to forms. How does one boil down the many and varied applications of this multi-purpose tool into a reasonably sized book? I think Matt Butcher did a fantastic job of doing just that.

The book was not quite what I expected, and that's a good thing. For one, the author assumed a minimal amount of experience from the reader, and started at square one with some basic terminology and a first 'hello, world' tutorial. Like most tech tutorial books, the chapters are comprised of 1-3 mini projects where some new ideas or techniques are introduced. For the most part, each chapter builds on previous chapters, illustrating more complex functionality. Another thing that struck me from the start and continued to impress me throughout was the quality and creativeness of the example projects. While few of the examples were production-ready, they solved common issues in a compelling way. Here's a quick list of some of the mini-projects:

  • Load an RSS feed via AJAX
  • Create a live in-page alert when new comments are added
  • Create a text editor
  • Create a random, rotating node teasers in jQuery
  • Write a jQuery plugin

A lot of these projects have crossed my mind as things I'd like to dig into at some point anyway. In addition to being interesting ideas, these projects are also executed in a way that brings together many aspects of Drupal. Having used jQuery and Drupal for a couple of years now, I felt like I knew the basics, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn something new in virtually every project. Some things I learned, but didn't expect to:

  • How to use JSON - I've been wanting to wrap my mind around that for a while
  • How to use translations in jQuery
  • What are Drupal behaviors - If you don't know about them now, you absolutely need to! They solve one of the more complex problems I've dealt with in complex jQuery apps
  • How to theme in jQuery - Awesome, I didn't know you could do that
  • Creating jQuery functionality in themes - I had thought this was a purely modular job, but no!

By the time you make it through the book, you've been introduced to all of the major parts of Drupal. If I had known nothing about Drupal from the start, I would come out the other end with the ability to create themes, modules, and jQuery plugins. Not bad for 318 pages, probably half of which is code. And the fact that I was still satisfied even having worked with Drupal and jQuery for the last couple of years says something to the depth of the material covered.

I was excited enough about the new stuff I learned that I picked up a module that had been languishing for a while and re-wrote a bunch of the code using the principles addressed in this book. The code is now a whole lot easier to understand and debug. The 2 major concepts I applied were object oriented javascript and Drupal behaviors. Drupal behaviors is binding jQuery actions to html elements on the fly, so if you load up some new content via ajax, you can then attach all the jQuery stuff to it without affecting the rest of the page (like accidently attaching an action a second time, which can have undesirable consequences). I've found all kinds of ways of dealing with this is the past, and they've all been really ugly in comparison. Behaviors are a breath of fresh air, and there were lots of examples in Drupal 6 Javascript and jQuery to really anchor the coolness of them.

Minor Nitpicks

My criticisms of the book are really minor in comparison with my praise. There were quite a few typos and consistency errors. In another genre of book I wouldn't be as concerned, but when dealing with code where one misplaced character can break an entire script, running into typos in the text reduces confidence that the code will work if copied verbatim, especially for the unexperienced programmer. I actually worked through every example up until the last two chapters, and was pleased to find out that they all (with one exception) worked as advertised. The one exception was in Chapter 7 where a module is required that does not produce valid JSON. It took me a while to discover the problem, look and find a patch to the module. One more really minor thing is that I felt that the tone vacillated a bit, assuming at times that the reader was new to programming, and at others more experienced. Sometimes a good bit of work went into describing more complex programming conventions, and at other times they were more casually alluded to.

Summary

Overall, I was really happy to spend the time reading this book. I'm not the fastest reader, and working through the code examples takes me some time, but it was worth it. It anchored some important Drupal 6 conventions, illustrated some best practices for jQuery which can extend from simple to complex projects, and introduced me to some of the ways that jQuery integrates with the different aspects of Drupal. I'm looking forward to reading more from Matt, and would recommend this book to anyone aspiring to jQuery ninja-dom.

Notes in the margin

I made several notes in the margin of the book that didn't make it into the above review, so here they are for those interested:

  • Until later on in the book, the example code snippets were short, which I appreciated
  • I liked the idea of introducing jQuery in the theme layer in early chapters. Really simple, good call.
  • Good callout in the translation chapter, which says 'hey, translations are really important, don't skip this chapter'. By the title, it was the least interesting chapter to me, but I really enjoyed it.
  • Excellent job covering lots of gotchas: Syntax coloring, can't call ajax on a different domain
  • Creating a javascript templating engine - weird and cool!
  • Would have liked a chapter on jQuery.getScript() - dynamically load javascript
  • How to handle cookies in jQuery - yea!
  • I like the .info file trick - stick your own stuff in there, use it later
  • I really liked the using caching for search auto-complete example. Will definitely use that one in the future.


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