TeX Books

The following is a highly opinionated view of a number of popular books about TeX and LaTeX, typography, and writing. YMMV.

(The first price is retail; the second price is Amazon.com's price at the time this page was written.)

TeX and LaTeX

Math into LaTeX, third edition

George Grätzer
Birkhauser. 0817641319. 2000.
520 pp.
$49.95 ($34.97)

My first choice for a general, introductory book about LaTeX is the third edition of George Grätzer's Math into LaTeX. I have a slight bias here, as I edited this book, redesigned all the tables, and did the index, but I don't get a cent out of sales, and the fact that I was so heavily involved means that I know the book (literally) inside and out.

George's book covers mathematical typesetting with LaTeX, especially the use of the AMS classes and packages, better than any other book I've seen. It has a really nice introductory bit at the start that assumes that you know nothing about LaTeX and walks you through putting together a basic document. Later sections explain the details of various packages and environments, as well as give you some useful tips on setting up template documents.

All modesty aside, I think that the symbol tables in the appendix are excellent. I use them a lot when I'm writing with LaTeX, and I often find myself referring to one part or another of this book to refresh my memory about how to do things.

George does leave some things out, however, such as the picture environment (which I've never needed) and non-publication classes such as letter (which are reasonably well documented elsewhere). It's still my favorite introductory text with some strong reference value.

LaTeX: A Document Preparation System, second edition

Leslie Lamport
Addison-Wesley. 0201529831. 1994.
272 pp.
$39.95 ($39.95)

Lamport's book will tell you everything you need to get started with LaTeX. It also has clear explanations on how some things work, and an excellent reference section.

However, it doesn't cover anything beyond LaTeX's core, hasn't been updated since 1994 (and therefore misses out on a lot of important stuff that has been added since that time). It's also incredibly expensive for what you get. If this book were $15 or $20, I would recommend it wholeheartedly for the reference section alone. But for $40 you'd be better off buying Math into LaTeX.

A Guide to LaTeX: Document Preparation for Beginners and Advanced Users, third edition

Helmut Kopka & Patrick W. Daly
Addison-Wesley. 0201398257. 1999.
600 pp.
$44.99 ($44.99)

I'm not as familiar with Kopka & Daly as I am with some of the books I actually own, but I did borrow it from the library and skim through it once.

I think it's a good book. It's more of an expansion of Lamport than Grätzer's book, covering letter and some other, nonstandard LaTeX classes, as well as various important packages that George doesn't cover.

For general usage, I think it's probably a good choice.

The LaTeX Companion

Michel Goossens, Frank Mittlebach, Alexander Samarin
Addison-Wesley. 0201541998. 1993.
528 pp.
$39.99 ($39.99)

For basic work, this book is irrelevant. If you need to do anything complicated or nonstandard, though, you're straying into the territory this book covers.

The LaTeX Companion covers many of the most important nonstandard packages, circa 1993. In particular, it has an enormous amount of information about using PostScript fonts with TeX (then a fairly new topic), as well as about customizing LaTeX to make it do what you want.

Although many of the packages it describes have changed considerably since its publication, it's still generally true that if you need this book, you need it. There have been rumors swirling about that a new edition is in the works, which would be very welcome, as the current edition is quite dated in some areas.

It's also fairly expensive, which is why my partner and I never bought it, although we often had it checked out of the library for months at a time while she was writing her dissertation.

The LaTeX Graphics Companion: Illustrating Documents with TeX and PostScript

Michel Goossens, Sebastien Rahtz, Frank Mittelbach
Addison-Wesley. 0201854694. 1997.
554 pp.

Concentrates on using PostScript and LaTeX packages to add color and illustrations to documents.

My general take was that most of this information was available elsewhere for free, and written at least as accessibly as this book.

The LaTeX Web Companion: Integrating TeX, HTML, and XML

Michel Goossens, Sebastian Rahtz, Ross Moore, Robert S. Sutor
Addison-Wesley. 0201433117. 1999.
524 pp.
$39.95 ($39.95)

All about transforming LaTeX into HTML, XML, and other Web-friendly formats.

Unfortunately, the whole world has changed pretty dramatically since this book was published, and a lot of its information is already dated. Most it is also available elsewhere, for free.

TeX Unbound: Latex and Tex Strategies for Fonts, Graphics, & More

Alan Hoenig
Oxford University Press. 019509686X. 1998.
?00 pp.
$45.00 ($45.00)

This book is really about programming TeX to do amazing things—it doesn't really touch on LaTeX at all.

My take on it was that it's a very advanced book, that assumes that you're very familiar with TeX and want to muck about in its innards. Apparently it also talks about moving TeX and LaTeX documents to web formats, but I mostly remember its discussion of the font-handling system and a chapter in which he explained how to generate some stunning PostScript graphics with METAPOST. (In particular, Japanese family shields.)

First Steps in LaTeX

George Grätzer
Springer Verlag. 0817641327. 1999.
125 pp.
$19.95 ($13.97)

Lest anyone think I'm too biased toward books I've worked on, I have to pan First Steps in LaTeX. Leaving aside the production issues (the masters were shot from 600 dpi printouts!), and the ugly, old-style tables (I couldn't convince George to let me rework them), this book is essentially the first part of Math into LaTeX pulled out and dropped into its own book.

It's fine as a very basic introduction, but once you've been through it, the book isn't very useful as a day-to-day reference, and doesn't cover more complicated topics. If you think you're at all serious about using LaTeX, you should just spring for Math into LaTeX rather than buy this book.

Recommendations

I strongly recommend Math into LaTeX as a general text, with Kopka & Daly's book as a close runner up. The “Companion” series books (mostly just The LaTeX Companion) would probably be useful to have available, but aren't really worth the investment for an individual unless they're doing some major LaTeX design work.

Typography & Writing

Two more books I would recommend as companions to your chosen LaTeX books.

BUGS in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose, second edition

Lyn Dupre
Addison-Wesley. 020137921X. 1998.
668 pp.
$19.95 ($13.97)

Lyn Dupre is one of Addison-Wesley's best copyeditors. She's worked with many of their top authors on multiple projects, and they love her.

BUGS in Writing distills her wisdom into easily digestible bits. Each chapter covers a different aspect of writing—redundant terms, which versus that, quotations, citations, references to parts, sections and heads—with explanations of what to strive for and Bad, Ugly, Good, and Splendid (BUGS) examples.

The book is written primarily for technical and scientific authors, but most of what she has to say applies to any kind of nonfiction writing. The book is designed to be browsed rather than read straight through—it's a great book to leave in the bathroom. If you like cats, you'll love the many pictures of her cats and friends scattered through the book.

The only criticism I really have of BUGS is that it doesn't have a proper index, which makes finding specific discussions difficult. Anyone doing technical writing should have and read this book, keeping it nearby for quick reference or casual consultation.

The Elements of Typographic Style, second edition

Robert Bringhurst
Hartley & Marks. 0881791326. 1997.
320 pp.
$29.95 ($20.97)

If BUGS in Writing addresses the details of writing while leaving design decisions to someone else (a generally excellent approach, especially when using TeX), Bringhurst addresses the other end of that scale, by laying out all you need to know to get a basic grasp of typography and document design.

In addition to many interesting facts (did you know that the character # is actually called an octothorp?), Bringhurst explains when to use small caps versus titling caps, why you should care about old-style figures and genuine small caps, how to typeset section heads and page headers and footers, how to choose typefaces, how to lay out pages, and much more.

The book is also a beautiful example of the author's philosophy, wonderfully typeset and printed on gorgeous paper.

If you're working on a book, or you want to design a new document class, Bringhurst is a very handy companion.