LJ Archive

Making TeX Work

Vince Skahan

Issue #8, December 1994

I was looking at this book as an opportunity to learn about all the little gotchas that just aren't made visible except by oral tradition from guru to wanna-be.

  • Author: Norman Walsh

  • Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.

  • ISBN: 1-5659Z-051-1

  • Price: $29.95

  • Reviewer: Vince Skahan

I'm an O'Reilly & Associates fan; a big fan. I went through my bookcases at home and at work and counted 19 different O'Reilly books that I've purchased with my own hard-earned cash. I refer to them almost daily.

I have one of the major commercial technical publishing packages available to me at work. I have a copy of Microsoft Word for Windows at home. I like their WYSIWYG look and feel and I like their intrinsic (to me at least) ease of use.

I'm admittedly not a big TeX fan at all; and I even participate quite a bit in the Linux DOC Project, which uses LaTeX as its document mark-up language of choice.

OK, call me a Linux heretic.

I was looking at this book as an opportunity to learn about all the little gotchas that just aren't made visible except by oral tradition from guru to wanna-be. Maybe after reading the book and trying some things, I'll be less TeX challenged. Naaaaahhhh...

Making TeX Work is a book that somehow disappoints me. The book follows the normal exceptionally high quality O'Reilly & Associates standards for organization, format, binding, and appearance. There's 469 pages simply chock-full of information regarding TeX and associated utilities. I just never figured out why a generic Linux user needs to buy it.

Stated Goal of the Book

The Summer 1994 'ora.com' catalog/magazine from O'Reilly & Associates has an article on this book that describes it as “a complete reference to this complex typesetting system”. It also states:

“We didn't want to do the same kind of book so many other people had written; describing the TeX language itself and how you can use it to write your documents in one of the many flavors of TeX macro languages... instead of writing a book on TeX, the text processor, we'd write a book on the entire TeX system.”

Cool—a book on how to put all the pieces together and make a document happen...

Later in the article, they mention that:

“In addition to the basic TeX program itself, you need many other tools to write even a moderately complete TeX document. You need to understand how TeX uses macro packages and format files, fonts, pictures, figures, and a host of utilities... ”

Hey wait a minute. I'm getting this feeling it won't have hands-on examples...

Making TeX Work guides you through this maze of tools and tells you how you can obtain them...”

Danger Will Robinson! Sounds like a how to find TeX sources FAQ...

1. An Introduction to TeX

The Big Picture describes what TeX is and what its goals are. It describes a little about how TeX formats pages to look nice, about the differences between text formatting, word processing and desktop publishing, and describes the underlying guts of how TeX does its magic. It's ugly in there, kiddies...

Editing briefly describes some of the usual editors that have varying abilities to provide a good environment for writing TeX documents.

This chapter disappointed me somewhat as I was looking for more information regarding exactly how to do something in typical editors. I was hoping that they'd pick an editor (even [ugh...] Emacs) and give some real details regarding how to hook in and use the editor to efficiently write TeX documents.

Running TeX describes how to execute the program and deal with some of the most common errors in the documents.

Macro Packages describes some of the different formats such as TeX, LaTeX, and TeXinfo as well as some of the more obscure special purpose formats such as MusicTeX. While I found them interesting, there is probably nothing here that you can't find out about elsewhere on Usenet.

There were some comments about how to do TeX in color and how to print 'em on a black and white printer that I found rather interesting.

2. Elements of a Complex Document

Fonts describes in laborious detail more than any sane person would want to know about font selection and generation. While it's a nice amount of background information, it sure scared the heck out of me, and I'm probably a typical member of the book's target audience.

Pictures and Figures talks a little about the fact that if you try hard enough, you can draw pictures in TeX. It also gives a few examples about how to include external images in your document.

One nice addition is a description of some of the many image generation, viewer, editor, and manipulation programs commonly available such as xv and ImageMagick. People who plan to provide WorldWideWeb pages with embedded graphics might be interested in this chapter even if TeX and friends scare you off.

International Considerations describes the issues (and tools to deal with them) involved in writing nonEnglish documents in TeX.

Printing talks about utilities that generate the appropriate fonts to be able to print what you can preview.

Previewing describes some of the various viewers for MS-Windows, X, DOS (non-Windows), and Unix terminals.

Online Documentation talks about how to make your TeX documentation available online in some of the more common formats such as TeXinfo, HTML, or ASCII.

Introducing METAFONT describes the mechanics of building non-standard fonts. Again, I wonder whether this issue isn't far beyond the probable ability (or interest) of the book's target audience.

Bibliographies, Indexes, and Glossaries talks about how to use BibTeX to automate citations of references into a bibliography and also about many of the utilities available to automate the creation and manipulation of a bibliography database. It also describes how to construct an index and glossary by annotating your TeX documents.

3. A Tools Overview

Non-commercial Environments discusses free and shareware TeX systems.

Commercial Environments talks about commercial versions.

TeX on the Macintosh describes utilities that are Mac-specific. I don't know why it seemed necessary to have a separate chapter in order to do this.

TeX Utilities talks about many of the commonly available TeX utilities available on the CTAN archives.


Filename Extension Summary describes about 55 different filename extensions you may run across that are related to TeX documents.

Font Samples gives 45 pages of font encoding tables and sample print from many of the METAFONT fonts.

Resources has 30 pages of extremely brief listings regarding how to a variety of TeX-related shells, editors, formats, and utilities.

Long Examples has 45 pages of scripts and other programs that are mentioned elsewhere in the book. The book examples are also available electronically on ftp.uu.net.


Making TeX Work has an incredible amount of information in it that you may someday either need to find or need to know. The problem is whether or not you need to spend $30.00 to find this information.

If you're a System Administrator who wants to cut to the chase regarding which public domain, commercial, or shareware software to acquire for your MS-Windows PC or non-Linux (huh?) Unix system then I'd give it a “maybe”. There's an enormous number of skeletal descriptions of the hundreds of utilities that exist out there on Internet or are available commercially, that the book makes available for you in one nice neat place.

If you're more of a potential TeX user, I'm not so sure that you'd be well served in buying this book. There's enough description of the basic pdnciples that it serves as a good starting point before you go and buy one of the more common TeX or LaTeX books to give you the details regarding the language. On the other hand, if you buy one of the other books you'd have that basic information already.

I suppose if forced to make a recommendation, I'd recommend that a Linux user who was looking to get into the world of TeX save their pennies and:

  • grab a recent copy of Slackware and install the whole T series of kits. Voila! You're most of the way toward having a functional TeX environment.

  • for how to do a single document, grab Matt Welsh's “linuxdoc-sgml” package. Write your document in SGML. Use Matt's package to convert it to LaTeX.

  • for how to write a big multi-part document, grab the sources for one of the larger Linux DOC Project documents (like Olaf Kirch's Network Administration Guide) and use it as an example.

  • to get the list of Linux add-one for TeX document production, use the WorldWideWeb index to the TeX CTAN archives by getting into Mosaic on your local Internet site. See the comp. text . tex Usenet group for the Web URL for the archives.

LJ Archive