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TeX Books

The following is a highly opinionated view of a number of popular books about TeX and LaTeX, typography, and writing. YMMV. (Last updated January, 2010.)

The price given is the retail price; booksellers may discount the books significantly.

TeX and LaTeX

More Math into LaTeX, fourth edition

George Grätzer
Springer. 978-0387322896. 2007.
619 pp.
$49.95

My first choice for a general, introductory book about LaTeX is the fourth edition of George Grätzer's Math into LaTeX. I have a slight bias here, as I edited the third edition of 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.

The fourth edition is updated for changes to the packages it discusses but the major change is to take the power of your computer for granted and assume that you will load the various AMS packages by default (and thus drops some discussion of older methods of doing some tasks). It also adds new material on putting together presentations with LaTeX using Beamer or FoilTeX and includes a chapter on setting up and maintaining a TeX system on your own machine.

LaTeX: A Document Preparation System, second edition

Leslie Lamport
Addison-Wesley. 978-0201529838. 1994.
288 pp.
$49.95

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—and the price has gone up $10 since I first put this list together! If this book were $15 or $20, I would recommend it wholeheartedly for the reference section alone. But for $49 you'd be crazy to buy it instead of Grätzer's More Math into LaTeX.

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

Helmut Kopka & Patrick W. Daly
Addison-Wesley. 978-0321173850. 2003.
624 pp.
$59.99

Kopka & Daly is the main competition with Grätzer's book. It covers basic LaTeX usage as well as some more complex topics, including a few areas that Grätzer skips, but it's more like an expansion of Lamport than a real replacment for More Math into LaTeX, covering letter and some other nonstandard LaTeX classes. There is some material here that's not in More Math, but it's probably not stuff you'd need.

The LaTeX Companion, second edition

Frank Mittlebach and Michel Goossens with Johannes Braams, David Carlisle, Chris Rowley
Addison-Wesley. 978-0201362992. 2004.
1120 pp.
$69.99

For basic writing with LaTeX, you shouldn't need this book, especially if you have one of the other comprehensive books (Grätzer or Kopka & Daly). But if you need to do anything complicated or nonstandard, or if you need to figure out how to typeset something unique, you're straying into the territory covered by The LaTeX Companion.

The LaTeX Companion documents many of the most important nonstandard packages, as of 2004. In particular, it has an enormous amount of information about using PostScript fonts with TeX (then a fairly new topic), as well as customizing LaTeX (creating new commands or environments) to make it do what you want.

Because it's an expensive book, I feel I should point out that most of the material in the book is already going to be available on a machine with a complete TeX system, as much of it is based on the documentation that accompanies the packages. The real strength of The LaTeX Companion is that it provides a useful overview of the sorts of things that other people have already figured out for you, gathered together in one place. It's a book I keep close to hand when I start working on a major project. I may find that a particular package has changed a bit, and need to consult the most recent copy of its documentation, but the Companion often gives me some basis to choose one package over another for a particular requirement.

The LaTeX Graphics Companion: Illustrating Documents with TeX and PostScript, second edition

Michel Goossens, Frank Mittelbach, Sebastien Rahtz, Denis Roegel, Herbert Voss
Addison-Wesley. 978-0321508928. 2007.
976 pp.
$64.99

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. I haven't found it to be particularly useful.

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

Michel Goossens, Sebastian Rahtz, Eitan M. Gurari, Ross Moore, Robert S. Sutor
Addison-Wesley. 978-0201433111. 1999.
560 pp.
$49.95

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. Not recommended.

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
Birkhäuser. 978-0817641320. 1999.
136 pp.
$44.95

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. Looking at this book in 2010, I'm shocked to see that the price has gone up from $20 (barely acceptable) to $50—the same as the full More Math into LaTeX, which essentially incorporates the material in this book in its first half. Very strongly not recommended.

Recommendations

I strongly recommend More Math into LaTeX as a general text, with Kopka & Daly's book as runner up. The “Companion” series books (really 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, revised edition

Lyn Dupre
Addison-Wesley. 978-0201379211. 1998.
704 pp.
$29.95

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, third edition

Robert Bringhurst
Hartley & Marks. 978-0881792065. 2004.
352 pp.
$29.95

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.