OK right now I am working on my own string theory book, String Theory Demystified. In order to get this book done I've had to bone up on string theory myself. This means I'm spending a lot of time reading papers, articles, and every single string theory book that's been published.
Given that I am currently wading through all these books, I thought I would offer my readers my own opinions of them. I will be publishing condensed versions of my thoughts on Amazon.com as I go along. Yes, I am writing a book which will be in competition with these folks, but I am trying to be as honest as I can.
The first book I'm going to talk about is the venerable STRING THEORY VOLUME ONE by Joseph Polchinski. I want to start off by saying that this book is very professionally written. Polchinski is obviously a guy who really knows what he is doing, and can teach and write besides do mathematical calculations.
My take on this book is that its written solely for advanced graduate students in particle physics. Presumably Polchinski assumes the reader has taken a quantum field theory course (perhaps from the amazing Sidney Coleman before he unfortunately prematurely passed away) using Weinberg or some other tome at a similar level. The fact is in this book there is no messing around.
In many ways, this book definitely accomplishes what it sets out to do-give graduate level students and professional physicists an advanced string theory book that can prepare them for research. This book is not one that is going to hold your hand. Nonetheless, it is very well written and has a clear and well organized exposition.
The notorious "path integral" is of course, a vital component when learning string theory at this level. It is something I am currently struggling with in the development of my own book. Do I include it or pretend like it doesn't exist (like Zweibach say)? My point of view is that on a basic level people are capable of a lot more than they imagine. So high standards should be set. If you're an advanced undergraduate in math or physics, the brutal truth is you CAN learn string theory at the level of Polchinski, even if you're physics instructors think you need to be sucking your thumb.
Why am I saying this? Let me go on a brief tangent and then I'll get back to my review of the book. I went to school at a supposedly no-name place-The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. But while there I discovered a brilliant instructor. We were lucky enough to have Pedro Embid, a guy with a Ph.D. in math from U.C. Berkeley who had two (2) appointments to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.
Pedro is a master at his craft, and knows mathematics like the back of his hand. When he teaches, he challenges you to get to this level even if in reality the expectation is not that you're going to make it to 100% where he is.
I bring this up because Pedro never wore kid gloves in any of the classes I took from him. Even as an undergradate, we would have tackled physics at the level of Polchinski if that had been the subject we were studying.
For some reason physics professors that I've encountered refuse to really challenge their students and don't think they're capable of this. That is why they don't teach say, general relativity for undergraduates or propose the drivel by Hartle as an example of what an undergraduate text in GR should look like. That is a load of crap if you ask me. If you're able to take linear algebra as a junior, then you are able to take what we call graduate level quantum mechanics too. So why not teach seniors quantum field theory and even string theory?
OK back to the book. Somehow Polchinski's book and the book I am trying to write fit into this morass of physics education.
What I find basically annoying is that nobody, even Polchinski, seems to have found a CLEAR and SIMPLE way to teach people what a path integral is and how to calculate them. I give Polchinski a B+ for his effort in the appendix, but come on people-can't we do better? I have yet to read a description of what a path integral is without 1) Getting a major headache and 2) being able to sit down and calculate them. I think Polchinski or someone else with an inclination to writing textbooks ought to just focus on that-write a small book on path integrals that finally makes this technique accessible to the majority of the human race. OK so where are you in your string theory program. Just staring out? This is not the book for you. I like Becker, Becker & Schwarz for "beginnners" (I am assuming you have a significant background in math & physics, but maybe you're not a star grad student at Princeton). I also liked the books by Kaku. Once you've gone through Becker et. al. you can tackle this one. I think just a basic understanding of quantum field theory is all you need, but the stumbling block is going to be the path integral. If you get path integrals, then this book will be a breeze. If you don't, then you're not going to know what the hell he is talking about.