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am 23. April 2010
Back in 1990, Robin Williams wrote a book entitled The Mac is Not a Typewriter that became quite popular. Its purpose was clear. All the little tricks and techniques that worked when people used typewriters needed to change when Macs and PCs replaced typewriters. For instance, on most typewriters, every letter took up the same amount of space on paper, so to distinguish the end of a sentence, a double space after a period made sense. On computers, however, most fonts printed with characters that took up varying amounts of space. A capital "M," for instance, was wider than a little "i." When that was true, that same double space looked oddly out of place and had to go.

This book, published twenty years later, serves the same role for our more technologically sophisticated generation. Most people now know that they shouldn't doublespace after periods, but they're confused about all the complexities of laying out documents and web pages with graphics and tables. How can I place that picture so it looks good on a page? What colors go best together? What fonts, out of dozens, should I use for text and headings in this business report? The bad news is that, as our computers allow us to do more, document and web page creation has gotten much more complex. The good news is that books like this one can help clear up that complexity.

But you may be asking, "Why should I pay $40 (retail) for this book?" If all you create in a typical year is a family newsletter at Christmas, then maybe you shouldn't. Spend the money on presents instead. But if you work or volunteer for a business or non-profit organization, the cost/benefit ratio is different. If you're going to spend hundreds of dollars printing and mailing a flyer or dozens of hours working on a new web site, then spending $40 to make sure what you create looks good makes a lot of sense. And once you learn how to create attractive documents, that knack will stay with you for the rest of your life.

There's also a reason why this book costs about twice as much as a typical book. Its two authors don't simply tell you what to do, they illustrate what they're saying with numerous well-done illustrations, many in full color. There's hardly a page in the book that doesn't have at least one illustration. (A picture really is worth a thousand words.) You're paying for the added cost of four-color printing and the hundred of hours they spent creating the illustrations. You're getting their expertise for only pennies an hour.

What if you're a bit more experienced in laying out documents? Well, I've been formatting books for a decade, and I found much that's useful in this book. One of my 'things' is creating books that are visually interesting and not just line after line of words. I spent many hours getting the formatting of my Tolkien chronology just right. But despite all those years of experience, this book has given me lots of new ideas. As ebooks with full-color abilities become more popular, I see it becoming even more useful.

I've only got one complaint and that's a minor one. Most of the pictures in the book are professionally done, but there are a handful that, I suspect, were not taken for publication (the three shots of kids in a pool, for instance). They're a bit too dark, too light or too fuzzy. That's not really that bad, since that's precisely the sort of pictures many us will be working with.

--Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings
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