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I know that there are a already number of questions on this site about good instructional (La)TeX materials for users at different levels.

What I am interested in, though, is what set of documents will give me (in which reading order) as complete an understanding as possible of TeX and LaTeX. If one would like to know all, why bother with "intros" anyway ;-)

I was gonna write that for TeX the best first document (and, in the sense described above, technically the only necessary one) should be "The TeXbook", but then there's e-TeX, which is not covered. And I don't know to what extent there is other, hidden advanced knowledge one can only learn only from various advanced tutorials or from looking at the source code.

Let's, for simplicity, assume that I am excluding knowledge about LaTeX packages from this question. For those, the best way is to read the package documentation. One should skim the package documentation of certain frequently used packages (those one is using) anyways.

Once one has an understanding of (e-)TeX, I have the same question for LaTeX 2e.

One reason for asking this question is that I never cease to be amazed at what gems of obscure tricks there exist. There's gotta be a way of acquiring this knowledge in a most efficient way other than by "reading around randomly and perusing the source code".

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You also need to hijack a few brains while you are at it. – percusse Feb 10 '13 at 2:21
@percuße If "(La)TeX documentation" is an unsolved problem, there is value in drawing attention to that fact :-) Cause it ought to be tackled. And I'm sure there are good approximation strategies available. – Lover of Structure Feb 10 '13 at 2:28
I mean if you leave a lot of smart people with a limited set of instructions, they will beat the hell out of them. So, you will always keep seeing clever solutions. I guess it's not only about knowing it but also owning it in the face of weird problems :) – percusse Feb 10 '13 at 2:30
@percuße That is a good point. I guess there are two flavors to my question then: How to learn about "all" commands (a tricky one, because internal macros can be accessed, and it's not clear which ones one "should" know about) and how to learn about the most commonly used tricks. For the latter, I wouldn't be surprised if advanced tutorials are the best source, though there's gotta be a reasonably small selection with good coverage. Again, if not, it can be regarded as an action item :-) – Lover of Structure Feb 10 '13 at 3:12
up vote 17 down vote accepted

You should read the TeXBook.

It doesn't cover everything (as you say, it doesn't cover e-TeX for example). But if you have digested the the TeXBook then you can pick up the rest as needed. The e-tex manual can be skimmed over in a few minutes if you know the basics, xetex similarly. Not that you gain mastery of all the extra commands in a few minutes, but if you know the core well, often you just need the extra manuals to check syntax of a particular command.

The information in the TeXBook can be found elsewhere, searching this site or the excellent free "TeX By Topic" manual. Often these alternative sources present the information in a more coherent and organised way, but somehow the TeXBook encapsulates more than just the syntax of the TeX language: it has something of Knuth's soul and passion for typesetting and reading it helps you understand why TeX is the way it is not just learn the way it is.

Of course, reading the TeXBook from cover to cover several times and using TeX for 25 years doesn't mean you understand all TeX code. I haven't the faintest idea about TikZ for example.

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My personal answer digest: First "The TeXbook" (answer by David Carlisle) and then "The LaTeX Companion" (answer by Tobi), in this order. Yiannis Lazarides' answer is insightful as well, though I think an efficient path (guided by this question/answer set) will be much faster. The answer by user "vonbrand" has good opinions. I take the answer by user "morbusg" as a joke, as I - despite its wit - factually agree with barely anything in it. For example, "The TeXbook" is good, but Lamport's book is not necessarily the best intro to LaTeX from today's perspective. – Lover of Structure Feb 18 '13 at 13:58
The TeXbook, TeX, the program, Knuth's collected papers on computer typography, then ... everything else. For a historical perspective (and a very humbling discovery that nothing is perfect the first time, even if Knuth himself did it), TeX and METAFONT. – alexsh Mar 22 '14 at 23:14

You only need to read http://tex.stackexchange.com/a/5713/963 and follow the implicit instructions at every stage.

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+1: this answer needs imho more attention; while it is personal and my path is definitely a bit different (and such differences are acknowledged in his little essay, to his credit), it contains the level of detail I was looking for: well done! – Lover of Structure Feb 10 '13 at 12:56

I’d say all that an advanced user should know can be found in the LaTeX companion

latex companion

Too learn more about package and class writing the clsguide and the dtxtut might help.

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+1: this answer needs imho more attention – Lover of Structure Feb 10 '13 at 12:54
  1. Concrete Mathematics
  2. TAOCP
  3. uname -m instruction set, for all values of m.
  4. SICP
  5. tex.web
  6. The TeXbook
  7. latex-base
  8. LaTeX: a Document Preparation System

Please note that just reading through all of the above does not guarantee an understanding of anything.

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"All of TeX/LaTeX" is an incredibly vast area. You'd need a few lifetimes for this. Better concentrate on what you need for the task at hand.

In my experience, if you try to "learn ahead", what happens is that (a) if you don't understand why to use something while studying, you won't learn it right; (b) when an use shows up, you've already forgotten about it; (c) when an use pops up, the tools have changed/there are new tools; (d) learning without motivating force requires too much self-discipline; or (e) some frustating combination of the above.

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These are very good thoughts, and to a considerable extent I agree. I am not sure about the "few lifetimes", after all it's also possible (though difficult and a lot of work) to learn "all" of a programming language without library add-on classes and modules. In the LaTeX world, the notion of a "library" corresponds to a package. So, learning all of TeX and LaTeX without any libraries/packages is definitely possible, and learning about the most commonly used packages ought to be possible too. ... – Lover of Structure Feb 10 '13 at 4:14
... I don't mean "all" literally, of course, but I mean it in the sense of "well enough to reach the level the TeX.SE experts on this site have". Also I don't mean "all" of their knowledge, as a lot of it will not be needed. If one can condense it to only the parts that often needed, that's probably a more realistic definition than "literally all". – Lover of Structure Feb 10 '13 at 4:16
@LoverofStructure, as I say in the closing ramblings in my answer, learn well what you are really using. Soon you'll be as expert as anybody here in that particular domain. This site is a super-expert because experts in many subfields flock together here. – vonbrand Feb 10 '13 at 4:24

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