Book review: The Linux Command Line

I received an email from No Starch Press about reviewing this book, and my first reaction was to say no.  I assumed this was essentially a book about using Bash, and therefore probably not useful to people reading the Digest.

I read it despite my knee-jerk reaction, and I didn’t need to reject it so suddenly.  Almost all of the book will apply to any Unix-like system.

My first real experience with something that wasn’t Windows or a Mac was at a summer job during college, sitting in front of a SparcStation 5 editing files and processing data for real estate.  Much of my muscle memory about vi and file manipulation dates from then.  This book, even though it’s technically for a different operating system, would have been just what I needed.  There’s no system administration in the book, just making your way around a filesystem and the tools you need to get results.  It’s the kind of skills I think people lose out on when they boot to a graphical interface in Ubuntu, for example, and then never experience these tools.

Negatives: a few areas won’t be of use to most BSD users, like the section on packaging, or the bash-centric instructions in the shell programming area.  There’s the occasional off comment, like that OpenSSH originates from “the BSD project”.  There’s surprisingly little of this however, and I had to think a bit to write this negative paragraph.

Positives:  The book puts the proper focus on some complex but rewarding aspects of command line use, like using vi (alright, vim) and understanding regular expressions.  Much of what it covers is the same material I’ve learned to use over time, and explained to others.

There’s clearly two areas to the book; the first half is about using the command line to accomplish work, and the second is about shell programming.  Making it at least through the first half will result in being able to work at a prompt with little issue, with the shell programming a nice bonus.  It’s not the normal mix of admin tasks and introductory text; it’s about working at the command line.  I imagine giving it to new software testers in a lab, or to a Windows user that has to deal with the occasional unfamiliar environment.  There isn’t an equivalent BSD-centric book like this, so it wouldn’t hurt a BSD user, either.

It’s available now at the No Starch website.

5 Replies to “Book review: The Linux Command Line”

  1. It’s worth pointing out that this fellow also has this book — maybe a slightly older edition — available under a Creative Commons license. According to his page (, the No Starch Press version is just a reprint. Which is fine, since this version, when I looked at it, seemed to be just as good as Justin says the No Starch Press printed edition is.

  2. I switched to this book last year for my Unix course. The students liked it, particularly the free download. The Author was happy to see it being used.

  3. I didn’t realize it had been previously published that way. I’m the best investigative journalist ever.

    In any case, I like having the physical book in hand; I find it very hard to sit and read electronic documents on my desktop for an extended period. It’s fine for “how do I fix this” sort of issues, but long reads are not pleasant. Or perhaps the rest of the Internet is too distracting.

  4. It would have been better as a physical book, because it was hard for the students to have both the terminal and examples from the PDF on the screen at the same time. Not enough screen real estate.

  5. TO: Will Backman
    –Right, desktop space is NEVER ehough… but then it’s the best time for them to learn their keyboard shortcuts, he-he. At least, that is how I learned them, only recently, although actively using bash command line for years now.
    It is SO MUCH easier to navigate between the open apps windows with Alt+Tab (GNOME) when they cover one another.
    With keyboard control of things it is just pressing the same keys and getting the window you need, while with mouse it is doing a more complex muscle work, which disturbs my concentration and effects the typing.
    My typing has improved these couple of weeks that I’ve been using kb shortcuts for everything, MUCH less wrong keys typed (almost none). This I couldn’t improve for years, never knowing the reason why.

    …OK, just wanted to say that mastering one’s keyboard goes side by side with CLI work.
    And generally, computers have improved a good deal since the days of DOS and all that, but in good many ways this progress has gone in a wrong direction. But that’s a long story…

    And logically: you have 100+ keys of your keyboard, a complete operation panel, and yet need to use some additional device like mouse. And when you have to do a lot of typing mouse is distracting (for me at least). So I’d say keyboard shortcuts are kinda the same level knowledge as CLI.

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