Linux in a Nutshell, 4th Edition, by Eb Guenther

Hot off the press Linux desktop reference.

This fourth edition of "Linux in a Nutshell" has grown to over 900 pages. I suppose the next edition will have to be split into several volumes, in order to keep it from becoming obscenely large.

The publishers describe the Nutshell series as "indispensable desktop references". In the Preface they point out that readers "are expected to have some idea how to do it, but can't always remember the correct command or option." This implies experienced Linux users. Curiously, they could easily have given the book "new user appeal". See "My only complaint" below.

I have always preferred hard copy manuals to electronic manuals. I also prefer quick-references over wordy descriptions. Thus I am predisposed to favor Nutshell books. This is especially true, when I compare the book to Unix or Linux "man pages". For example, the relatively simple command "more" is described in the man pages with 29 words: "More is a filter for paging through text one screenful at a time. This version is especially primitive; users should realize that less (1) provides more (1) emulation and extensive enhancements."

The Nutshell book does the same job with only 19 words: "(more) Displays the named files on a terminal, one screenful at a time. See less for an alternative to more. "This latest Linux in a Nutshell issue is primarily a command reference, with half of the book dedicated to that job. This reference describes all commands in a single alphabetically sorted chapter. Previous editions had divided this reference into user commands, networking commands, and administrative commands. That irritated those of us with poor memories, because we had to search several sections for a command, whose name we might also have been unsure about. See "My only complaint" below, for even better memory aids.

The 4th Edition reflects changes in security consciousness by the addition of commands like "iptables", an alternative to the earlier "ipchains". Obsolete commands, such as "ipfwadm", have been dropped. The wide use of CD burners, and multimedia, is reflected by coverage of CD related utilities.

Reference books can best be evaluated in terms of cost for value received. This Nutshell's list price of $40 works out to a per page price of better (less) than $0.05, a good benchmark for useful books. If you prefer a weight benchmark, this book sells for less than $1 per ounce (43 oz for $40). Yes, I weighed the book! But don't call the men in the white coats yet. After all, this is about a _Nut_shell book. Besides, I'm working on a security device that tracks customers through the store by weight. The entry has an integrated scale that checks you in at your starting weight. The integrated scale at the exit checks you out at your finished weight. Shoplifters weigh more at the exit than when they come in. If you buy something, the purchased weight gets deducted from the starting weight by the store's computer. I haven't figured out yet how to deal with visits to the "00" (European room number for a facility shared by all other rooms, if you get my drift). What's this got to do with Linux? I'm using a Linux embedded server to manage the tracking. Sorry about that (just think of my digressions as dips in the road).

Anyway, since HAL-PC members are entitled to a 20% User group discount with O'Reilly (see the HALNet webpage for details), the resulting price per page is even more attractive, at about 4 cents per page (or about six bits per ounce). But do not forget to factor in the cost of shipping.

My only complaint about the book is the lack of an Index by Function. It's not like I'm asking them to add a major section. Chapters one and two already contain indexes by function, except the commands are sorted alphabetically by name (not by definition). They could easily sort these few lists by description, and mayhaps edit the descriptions a bit - to provide better sorting. Is that too much to ask? Those of us who cannot remember the name of a command, only that there is one available for a certain functionality, would all be happier. It could validate the cleverly named "Beginner's Guide".

Besides the inaptly named "beginner's guide" and command reference, some topics are covered in fair detail. Where appropriate, entries in the command reference point to associate chapters. Foremost among these special topics are the choices of desktop managers (Chapters 16 to 19): GNOME (Gnu Network Object Model Environment), KDE (K Desktop Environment), and fvwm2 (F Virtual Window Manager), as well as bootloaders (Chapter 4, LILO and the newly covered GRUB loader).

As in earlier versions of this book, two package installation utilities are covered in detail: RPM and Debian's package manager (Chapter 5). The two most widely used document version control utilities have one chapter devoted to each: RCS (Revision Control Systems, Chapter 14) and CVS (Concurrent Version System, Chapter 15). Coverage of shells (Chapters 6 to 9) and editors (Chapters 10 to 12) round out the book.

Despite the apparent concern about newcomers, I would encourage the use of this book, in conjunction with the "apropos" command (look it up) within Linux. Apropos can give you a list of possible commands, which you can then look up in the alphabetical command reference, to determine if they fit your need. This may seem like a dictionary approach to education, but look out - you could learn a lot this way! If that isn't your style, you could become an activist: write the publisher about the lack of a functional index, and wait for the next edition (though you may wait in vain - O'Reilly would actually have to change a decade long success - format to accommodate this request). If you like, send your comments to O'Reilly at

Eb Guenther is a HAL-PC member whom you can contact at