Tanning on the beach with a cheap novel has joined the list of fun things that are considered hazardous to your health.
This is good news for hard-core computer users, since it is now considered fashionable to maintain a pasty pallor and to wear socks with sandals. In other words, looking like a computer nerd is hip. Bill Blass is out, Bill Gates is in.
A good computer book can enhance the image when you are sitting under the beach umbrella, sipping a Jolt cola and poking your toes into the sand, which is, after all, the raw material for silicon chips. Luckily, this summer's array of computer books is quite good.
The closest thing to a cheap novel in the computer book section is "Accidental Empires," subtitled "How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date" ($19.95, published by Addison-Wesley).
The author is Robert X. Cringely, who writes a delightful gossip column called Notes From the Field for the weekly computer tabloid Infoworld.
Cringely (a nom de keyboard) recounts the history of the personal computer industry and its key players. He does so with a combination of a tabloid writer's flair for expose and an anthropologist's wonder at a business culture created by geeky teen-agers.
Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corp. and a leading character in "Accidental Empires," has said that Cringely's book is the most outrageous pack of lies he has ever read, which lets you know right off that it contains some juicy stories. While the veracity of many of the tales is suspect, they are highly entertaining.
Cringely is a deft writer who is particularly good at capturing the human side of a business based on machines.
Jim Seymour's "On the Road, the Portable Computing Bible" ($26.95, Brady Books/Prentice Hall Computer Publishing) is a worthy successor to Seymour's previous book, "Jim Seymour's PC Productivity Bible."
The first book was a compendium of solid advice and clever tips on how to get the best use out of a computer in the office. The "On the Road" book is just as valuable for anyone who lugs a computer along while traveling.
Seymour is a computer consultant who has hauled portable computers all around the world, and he bears the scars of the experienced traveler. (Literally, it turns out; he relates that he has been beaned a few times by computers and loose batteries that fell from the overhead bins on aircraft.)
As a result, this is not a gee-whiz-aren't-portable-computers-great book. Instead, it is a survival manual.
The advice in "On the Road" is dispensed in concise dollops -- here's a common problem, and here's a smart and simple solution -- with chapters rarely expanding to more than a few pages. The tips flow easily and abundantly. "The Apple Macintosh Book, Fourth Edition" ($24.95, Microsoft Press), by Cary Lu, remains the definitive reference for the Mac.
The Macintosh has evolved radically since Lu wrote the first edition; the familiar squatty, underpowered box has now taken several new forms, ranging from the sleek Mac LC to the compact Powerbook to the powerful Quadra towers.
Lu, who holds a doctorate in biology, dissects all these new Macs thoroughly and presents his findings in a no-nonsense style. The topics range from the hardware itself to networking and peripherals and the latest operating system, System 7. Like the Macintosh itself, the Apple Macintosh Book keeps getting better.
The Mac is a graphical computer, which means that it uses lots of visual symbols instead of typed characters. It makes sense, then, that a Macintosh book should have lots of graphics, too. "Danny Goodman's Macintosh Handbook" ($29.95, Bantam Computer Books) is a riot of graphics.
It seems that the goal of the book designer was to capture the spirit of the Macintosh in printed form, so while Goodman's book covers much of the same material that Lu's book does, the experience of reading it is vastly different.
Critics might complain that the effect is like trying to read text printed on a Hawaiian shirt, but I found it entertaining as well as informative.
The best Windows books will be reviewed next week.