Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book review: Thinking in Java

I recently read the 1000-page tome Thinking in Java, written by Bruce Eckel, with the goal of getting my feet wet in the parts of the language that were still obscure to me. Here is my review of the book, containing its strong and weak points.

Basic topics

This is a book that touches on every basic aspect of the Java language, keeping an introductory level throughout but delving into deep usage of the Java standard libraries when treating a specific subject.
The basic concepts are well covered by the first 200 pages:
  • primitive values, classes and objects, control structures, and operators.
  • Access control: private, package, protected, public for classes, methods and fields.
  • Constructors and garbage collection.
  • Polymorphism and interfaces that enable it.
Most of the basic topics are oriented to programmers coming from a C procedural background, so they don't dwell on syntax but instead focus on the semantics and the JVM memory model.
Even if you come from a modern dynamic language, you will still find this first part useful to intimately understand how the language works. You will learn common idioms and patterns such as delegating to parent methods, getting a feel for Java code instead of trying to write Ruby code in a Java environment.

Wide coverage

The larger part of the book instead will be useful to cover new ground, if your knowledge is lacking in some areas or if you want a complete understanding of it. For example, I have a good knowledge of data structures such as ArrayList, HashMap and HashSet; still the 90 pages on the Java collections framework introduced me to structures such as the PriorityQueue whose usage is infrequent but can be very useful when you encounter a problem that calls for them.
Here is a full list of the specific topics treated in the book:
  • Inner static and non-static classes.
  • Exceptions management with try/catch/finally blocks.
  • Generics and all their advanced cases including example such as class SelfBounded<T extends SelfBounded<T>>.  I thought I knew generics until I read this chapter.
  • The peculiarities of arrays, still present in some parts of the language such as method calls with a variable number of arguments.
  • The Java collections framework, much more than List, Set and Map; lots of different implementations and a conceptual map of all the interfaces and classes.
  • Input/Output at the byte and text level, plus part of the java.nio evolution.
  • Enumerated types.
  • Reflection and annotations (definition and usage).
By the way, a few of the chapters can safely be skipped to make the book shorter. Drop the graphical user interfaces chapter as totally outdated, I don't even write user interfaces different without HTML anymore nowadays. probably the most popular GUI framework right now is the Android Platform rather than what's described here.
I also suggest to skip the concurrency and threading chapter, since such a small treatment cannot do justice to this topic. I would prefer another dedicated introduction and then go on with a more advanced book like Java Concurrency in Practice, which will tell you also what not to do instead of showing all the language features.
On this point, I find the writing of Bruce Eckel conservative, showing caution with advanced and obscure features rather than showing off with the risk of writing unmaintainable code down the line. The point is making you able to read complex Java code, not enabling you to write a mess more quickly.


The book is quite lengthy, but lets you select a subset of the chapters pretty well if you need to dig into a particular topic. The text is driven by code samples, and to experimenting instead of reciting theory.
I suggest to read a digital version with your IDE ready: at least in my case, I found it easier to pick up concepts and get involved by writing my own examples. A 1000-page book would be pretty daunting if read on a device with no interaction, as it's the polar opposite of dense.
I created many test cases like this one, which lead me to verify the assumed behavior of Java libraries and features with my own hands:


The drawback of this book is its not being up-to-date with the current version of the platform, Java 8. The most recent version is the 4th edition, available on Amazon since 2006, which treats every feature up to Java 5.
You will have to piece together knowledge of Java 8 and the intermediate versions from other sources. I would have expected this book to at least be up-to-date with Java 7 due to its popularity.
However, due to Java's backward compatibility, what you read is still correct: I only found one code sample to have a compilation problem. I wonder how long would this book be if it was edited again to include Java 8: it could probably get to 1500 pages or more and implode under its own weight.


If you work with Java, Thinking in Java is a must-read, either to get a quick introduction to the basic features or to delve into one of the specific areas when you need it. You will probably never be surprised by reading Java syntax or idioms again. However, don't expect a complete coverage of such a huge world: this should be your first Java book, not the last.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

+1 for the sentence:
"I created many test cases like this one, which lead me to verify the assumed behavior of Java libraries and features with my own hands"