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It's pretty rare for me to read a Drupal book that I can't recommend to anyone. So rare, in fact, that this will be the first time I've done so while reviewing books for DrupalEasy.
Before I go into details, I want to be clear about something: writing a technical book isn't easy. While I haven't written one myself (unless my Master's thesis counts), I have written my share of technical articles and I'm never surprised at how much longer it takes me than I originally imagined. This is mainly due to the difficulty to make my thoughts clear to a large group of people. Combine that with a topic as difficult as the Panels module and you've got quite a task ahead of you.
While the idea behind panels is easy to grok, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Earl Miles (merlinofchaos on drupal.org, and one of the very few to score "11" on CertifiedToRock.com), the creator of panels, has stuffed every conceivable option and an unbelieveable amount of flexibility into the Panels suite of modules. As with many things in the Drupal community, this makes for something very powerful, but also something very time-consuming to fully understand and use - both in theory and practice.
Several books that I've reviewed in the past have included a chapter or two (at most) about Panels. Authors of these books have had the distinct advantage of not having to go into too great of detail. The author of Drupal 6 Panels Cookbook did not have this luxury - and unfortunately fell short of writing something that will be useful to the vast majority of Drupal users.
One of the first issues I had with the book was the fact that many complex ideas were introduced without adequate background information or explanation. The ideas of "variants" and "context" were both introducted very quickly and without much explanation. Anyone familiar with Panels know that these are two of the main building blocks of anything except than the most simple panels. Much of the rest of the book quickly builds upon this ideas - I have the feeling that readers new to Panels will quickly get lost.
While the concept behind a "variant" is explained - it is done so in a section about upgrading from Panels 2 to Panels 3. The vast majority of readers will most likely skip this section (as I did) since Panels 2 wasn't that widely adopted. Unfortunately, this means that most readers will miss the "variant" explanation.
The explanation of "context" is even more baffling. Instead of describing it in his own words, the author simply repeats Earl Miles' definition and explanation from Earl's Angry Donuts blog (without a reference) and then swiftly moves into how to implement it in Panels. As an experienced Drupal instructor, I've found that explaining what "context" is (to both newbies and experienced developers) in the Drupal sense requires significant discussion and often multiple examples.
The aspect of the book that put it over the top for me is the lack of apparent understanding on the author's part on how to override node displays. Panels allow site administrators to override the default node display so that you can layout the various parts of a node (title, body, tags, comment form, etc...) using Panels instead of (or combined with) custom theming. The author instructs the user to create a new panel then use context to create the override - for each individual node. At no point does he talk about the built-in "Node add/edit form" panel that performs the same task but in a much more generic way. I can only hope that the author was working with an early alpha- or beta-version of Panels 3 that didn't include this. There are numerous cases in the book where the author describes a specific case that works for one particular node instead of the generic case that works for groups of nodes. I feel this does the reader a huge disservice.
There is also the case of where I feel the author doesn't adequately grasp the fundamental concept behind Drupal's menu system. In one example, he adds the "Navigation" menu to a Panel pane. In the very next example, he modifies the Menu setting of the Panel to cause the "Navigation" menu to disappear. While this might work as a coincidence, the Panel's Menu setting is used to place a reference to the panel in Drupal's menu system - not for displaying a particular menu in a pane.
The author does make a nice effort to discuss Drupal modules that leverage Panels (OG Panels, Advanced Profile, and Views, to name a few), but unfortunately, these chapters are built on a weak foundation of previous concepts and examples.
As I said at the top of the article - writing a technical book isn't easy. Writing a technical book about Panels (or Views, for that matter) is a pretty steep hill to climb. This might explain why this is the first book to focus solely on Panels and there is only a single book that focuses on Views (and a subset of Views at that!) I love the idea of having a single reference book that focuses on Panels, and I was hoping this would be a book that I can use and that I can recommend to other developers and clients. Unfortunately, it is not.
If you're needing to learn how to use Panels, perhaps a better bet (for now) would be to dive into the Drupal documentation, user forums, and Drupal Planet articles until something with a more solid foundation is available.
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