eBook Review: Mastering Emacs

After seeing positive references to it on Linux Weekly News and elsewhere, I bought a copy of “Mastering Emacs” by Mickey Petersen.

This is a self-published eBook (you purchase a PDF), apparently based on an Emacs-focused blog that the author has been maintaining for a while.

Given the positive commentary, I had high expectations, but unfortunately, the book turned out to be a disappointment.

The book only covers the absolute basics (buffers, windows, movement, editing, killing/yanking), which are also covered by, for instance, the Emacs tutorial. I had hoped to find accessible discussions of some more advanced topics (deep dives into some important major modes, XML, Unicode input, Melpa, LSP, Magit), but was disappointed. The book does not even mention rectangles (the one bit of true magic that almost only Emacs provides).

I learned very little that I didn’t know, and even less that I care to use or remember. I don’t think the book covers significantly more than the Emacs tutorial or the 2-page Emacs Refcard, both of which are part of the Emacs distribution. Only that this book requires over 300 pages, when the Refcard makes do with 2 (in words: two).

Stylistically, the book is fairly clear and well-written, although I eventually started to find the author’s overbearing manner obnoxious (“It is absolutely vital that you learn how to use these commands”, “My recommendation is that you (…) start using Helm right away” — author’s emphasis). He also finds it necessary to re-iterate frequently (as in: every other page) how great and wonderful and unique Emacs is. Mentioning it once (in the Preface) would have been enough; as it is, it’s the kind of hyper-ventilating Emacs idolatry that makes me reluctant to say in public that I use Emacs.

In short: if you have never used Emacs before, you may find this an adequate (though wordy) introduction. Otherwise, feel free to skip. (Or spend some time browsing the Emacs Wiki.)