The C Programming Language by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan — colloquially known as K&R — is consistently ranked among the top computer programming books. It introduces the C language, its idioms and a part of its library in 190 pages. The last 50 pages contain a reference of the language. Programmers frequently praise K&R for its succinctness and clarity and deplore that the newer programming books are much longer and don’t have clear explanations or real-world examples.
I own a copy of K&R and I agree that it is great; authors of programming books should read it and work to bring the same pith and clarity to their own work. Nevertheless, writing a book on a general purpose programming language in less than 200 pages is not something that authors should aim for. K&R achieves its thinness by avoiding some important topics, not the least of which is safety.
When learning a new skill, such as driving or cooking, it is important to be aware of the possible dangers and how to avoid them. Road safety should not begin after you’ve wrecked your father’s car and it is not after you’ve cut your fingers that you need to learn how to properly handle a knife. Programming is no different: safety needs to be taught from the start.
Regretfully, K&R lacks detailed explanations on how to use the language safely. I cannot recall instances when the authors discussed data validation, how to gracefully and idiomatically handle error conditions or how to avoid the dreaded buffer overflows or format string exploits that plague so many programs today. It might have been okay in the late 70s to just tell the reader how to make a program work and let them deal with safety themselves, but in the 21st century, when so many aspects of our lives are governed by software, it is crucial that safety be constantly on the programmers’ minds. Authors should not leave out the details on how to use a tool safely just to skimp on page; doing so would be highly irresponsible.
I recently read Programming in Scala by Martin Odersky, Lex Spoon and Bill Venners and I want to point to their book as an example of clear and succinct writing while still providing the read with plenty of details and making sure that the best practises of the language are taught.