Learn Ruby The Hard Way: A Book Review

A book review of Learn Ruby the Hard Way - Third Edition.
Review by: RubyLearning’s mentor Victor Goff.
Book author: Zed A. Shaw.
Publisher: Addison-Wesley

TL;DR: Great idea, generally a good book. Many minor problems or things taught that may be misrepresented.

I got this book a while ago, and of course it is available online as well. And though it seems like it might be an easy book to review, it is, what I would call, a “Pattern Book”. Due to this, it is actually a bit more difficult to review.

This book is patterned from his prior “Learn The Hard Way” books, and follows along with the theme, which is helpful. I will be reading more of his books, as once you now the format of one, you can know what to expect from the others.

As an instructional book, it is teaching you the “hard way”, because you really need to follow along, it builds up from the basics and gets you to a good place to continue to learn from. And it covers a lot.

It also has a lot of areas to review because of this, a lot of little technical things. I went through every exercise, and am now going through every exercise with someone new to programming. I believe that the pace is good for a new programmer.

I get an impression that the author wrote this while being immersed in another language. There are hints of it throughout. One problem area, which is not going to be a show stopper, but a problem area nonetheless, is his explanation about the triple equals in Ruby. There is no such thing, but he uses it from the time he introduces it and through the book. It is little things like this that can confuse a new programmer in the language, if they even spot it. If they spot it, they start to wonder what else is not right. It can be a pretty large distraction.

There are other areas that are difficult though, where he references things that are not used, but addresses them in the “Questions” section.

There are things that are initially overlooked. For example, using string interpolation early on (Exercise 2) but not explaining what it does. Why does the math happen in "3 + 2 #{3 + 2}" inside the brackets? Sometimes we do ignore things when instructing but I felt it was fitting to explain at least briefly what is happening. I think that is a little too magical to let it be seen, yet let it not be addressed there. That is, for a new programmer. An experienced one will likely be familiar enough to know.

There are places were we are told that an error will happen if we do something, yet doing so does not raise an error. This can be very time consuming for someone new to the language.

Using gets.chomp.to_i which I see occasionally in the wild, but it is never needed together. (An integer simply will never have a newline, and so you don’t need to remove it before you convert a string with a newline.) As an instructional tool, and the third revision, little things like these should be taken care of.

There were also various areas where there seems to have been printing problems. Where there should have been a backslash or two, but there were none. This happens when you programmatically format material, but with code, it is important to leave some things alone. Pretty sure those errors happen in printing, not in the proofreading process while the material is written. This can be seen in some places where there should have been backslashes that should be in the literal display, indicated by “What you should see” sections but were removed in print.

The good news is that some of these problems can likely be taken care of in a pull request. The distractions are minor if you are teaching, or leading a group, but reading this alone could be frustrating as you are trying to dig into what is going on. Especially since Zed Shaw states in places, to paraphrase, “Don’t worry about it right now, just do as I say.” Once that statement is made, an explicit level of trust being demanded, I believe this lowers the tolerance of omissions and errors dramatically.

I would recommend the book for those that are leading a ‘workshop’ or putting together some Ruby classes, that can provide the answers when strange things are presented. But for those new to Ruby, I can definitely expect some confusion. It would be recommended that someone that is familiar with Ruby be available to answer questions.

I was surprised to see some of these problems in a “Third Edition” copy.


Too many little problems, some outright technical errors, and some not so helpful printing problems. Somehow it seems to be missing a layer of technical review, and final proofing.

I believe it is still a good tool for supervised instruction.

I can not recommend this book for a new programmer with no quick feedback loop, someone to ask. I would not give this book to one of my kids and leave them to it. It should work for a programmer just getting into Ruby, but familiar with other languages.

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