Learning React

By Alex Banks & Eve Porcello

My first JavaScript project was a React frontend to a REST service. As part of that project, I read two books: JavaScript: The Definitive Guide to learn the language foundation and this book to learn the framework on top of it. This was an unintentional experiment in the ways programming books can approach the topic.

I commented in my review of JavaScript: the Definitive Guide that it takes the reference manual approach to the language. Learning React is the exact opposite. It's goal-driven, example-heavy, and has a problem and solution structure. The authors present a sample application, describe some desired new feature or deficiency in it, and then introduce the specific React technique that solves that problem. There is some rewriting of previous examples using more sophisticated techniques, but most chapters introduce new toy applications along with new parts of the React framework.

The best part of this book is its narrative momentum, so I think the authors were successful at their primary goal. The first eight chapters of the book (more on the rest of the book in a moment) feel like a whirlwind tour where one concept flows naturally into the next and one's questions while reading about one technique are often answered in the next section. I thought the authors tried too hard in places and overdid the enthusiasm, but it's very readable in a way that I think may appeal to people who normally find programming books dry. Learning React is also firm and definitive about the correct way to use React, which may appeal to readers who only want to learn the preferred way of using the framework. (For example, React class components are mentioned briefly, mostly to tell the reader not to use them, and the rest of the book only uses functional components.)

I had two major problems with this book, however. The first is that this breezy, narrative style turns out to be awful when one tries to use it as a reference. I read through most of this book with both enjoyment and curiosity, sat down to write a React component, and immediately struggled to locate the information I needed. Everything felt logically connected when I was focusing on the problems the authors introduced, but as soon as I started from my own problem, the structure of the book fell apart. I had to page through chapters to locate some nugget buried in the text, or re-read sections of the book to piece together which motivating problem my code was most similar to. It was a frustrating experience.

This may be a matter of learning style, since this is why I prefer programming books with a reference structure. But be warned that I can't recommend this book as a reference while you're programming, nor does it prepare you to use the official React documentation as a reference.

The second problem is less explicable and less defensible. I don't know what happened with O'Reilly's copy-editing for this book, but the code snippets are a train wreck. The Amazon reviews are full of people complaining about typos, syntax errors, omitted code, and glaring logical flaws, and they are entirely correct. It's so bad that I was left wondering if a very early, untested draft of the examples was somehow substituted into the book at the last minute by mistake.

I'm not the sort of person who normally types code in from a book, so I don't care about a few typos or obvious misprints as long as the general shape is correct. The general shape was not correct. In a few places, the code is so completely wrong and incomplete that even combined with the surrounding text I was unable to figure out what it was supposed to be. It's possible this is fixed in a later printing (I read the June 2020 printing of the second edition), but otherwise beware. The authors do include a link to a GitHub repository of the code samples, which are significantly different than what's printed in the book, but that repository is incomplete; many of the later chapter examples are only links to JavaScript web sandboxes, which bodes poorly for the longevity of the example code.

And then there's chapter nine of this book, which I found entirely baffling. This is a direct quote from the start of the chapter:

This is the least important chapter in this book. At least, that's what we've been told by the React team. They didn't specifically say, "this is the least important chapter, don't write it." They've only issued a series of tweets warning educators and evangelists that much of their work in this area will very soon be outdated. All of this will change.

This chapter is on suspense and error boundaries, with a brief mention of Fiber. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with this material as a reader who is new to React (and thus presumably the target audience). Should I use this feature? When? Why is this material in the book at all when it's so laden with weird stream-of-consciousness disclaimers? It's a thoroughly odd editorial choice.

The testing chapter was similarly disappointing in that it didn't answer any of my concrete questions about testing. My instinct with testing UIs is to break out Selenium and do integration testing with its backend, but the authors are huge fans of unit testing of React applications. Great, I thought, this should be interesting; unit testing seems like a poor fit for UI code because of how artificial the test construction is, but maybe I'm missing some subtlety. Convince me! And then the authors... didn't even attempt to convince me. They just asserted unit testing is great and explained how to write trivial unit tests that serve no useful purpose in a real application. End of chapter. Sigh.

I'm not sure what to say about this book. I feel like it has so many serious problems that I should warn everyone away from it, and yet the narrative introduction to React was truly fun to read and got me excited about writing React code. Even though the book largely fell apart as a reference, I still managed to write a working application using it as my primary reference, so it's not all bad. If you like the problem and solution style and want a highly conversational and informal tone (that errs on the side of weird breeziness), this may still be the book for you. Just be aware that the code examples are a trash fire, so if you learn from examples, you're going to have to chase them down via the GitHub repository and hope that they still exist (or get a later edition of the book where this problem has hopefully been corrected).

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-04-24