Can you learn Rails before learning Ruby? You can, for a little while. But as your app grows past the REST, generated-scaffold, twitter-clone stage, you’re going to run into some walls. Sure, you’ll learn some Ruby through osmosis. But that’ll take forever.
If you want to learn enough Ruby to master Rails, study Ruby on its own. But there are tons of Ruby books out there. I counted four shelves the last time I was in a bookstore. A lot of them are good. But there are a few that are in a class of their own. And they’ll help you through the entire process of learning Ruby.
From the beginning
Rails might be your first framework, and Ruby your first language. If you’re new to programming in general, you’ll want to start with Learn to Program. It’ll teach you to write your own programs in Ruby, even if you’ve never written code before. It’ll start you off with good habits. And I know lots of people that had a lot of fun with this as their first-ever programming book.
Next, Eloquent Ruby will teach you to write Ruby that looks like Ruby. (Which is really important to Rubyists). You’ll learn how to define classes, how to create methods on the fly, and why you’d choose one way of writing Ruby code over another.
After reading Eloquent Ruby, you’ll know idiomatic Ruby. And you’ll have an easier time reading and understanding the code you encounter.
When things get tougher
Once you read those books, you’ll know how to write Ruby code, but you’ll still have trouble organizing it. When does a method go into one class instead of another? When are classes too big? What should you do when you wrote a method so complicated that you can’t understand it?
Confident Ruby and Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby are the gems of intermediate Ruby development. Read these, and your Ruby code will be forever changed for the better.
Confident Ruby will teach you to write readable Ruby code by following some simple, general patterns. It’s about writing code that’s clear about what it does. Code that pushes decisions, duplication, and edge cases away from itself, so you don’t have to think about the complicated parts when you don’t need to. Code that Just Works.
Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby is about applying good design to your code. You’ll learn how to structure your objects, methods, and communication between them, so your code is easier to use and test. It’s about making your code flexible, without applying too much structure. And writing tests that you won’t hate fixing when your code changes.
Next, you’ll learn more by seeking out lots of ideas, and learning more about the ones that seem interesting. Blogs are good, but there’s been an explosion of other great resources, released regularly, on a variety of Ruby topics.
Some of my favorites are:
RubyTapas and Ruby Steps are both paid services. But they each have some episodes / newsletters available for free, so you can see if they’re your style before you sign up.
I’ve learned a ton about Ruby from years of random articles and screencasts. It’s not the most organized way to get information, but it works.
Bringing it back to Rails
Rails is Ruby. The time you spend learning Ruby will teach you about Rails, and vice versa.
So learning Ruby first isn’t a requirement for using Rails. You can do a lot with Rails even if you have to muddle through the Ruby.
But it’s not the best way to do it. You’ll have to learn Ruby eventually. And when you do, you can use these books to build a solid foundation.