I find it frustrating that many things happen inside my Linux machine that I do not understand. If, like me, you want to really understand your system rather than just knowing how to use it, this document should be a good place to start. This kind of background knowledge is also needed if you want to be a top notch Linux problem solver.
I assume that you have a working Linux box, and understand some basic things about Unix and PC hardware. If not, an excellent place to start learning is Eric S. Raymond's The Unix and Internet Fundamentals HOWTO It is short, very readable and covers all the basics.
The main thread in this document is how Linux starts itself up. But it also tries to be a more comprehensive learning resource. I have included exercises in each section. If you actually do some of these, you will learn much more than you could by just reading.
I hope some readers will undertake the best Linux learning exercise that I know of, which is building a system from source code. Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher (1668-1744) said ``verum ipsum factum'', which means ``understanding arises through making''. Thanks to Alex (see Acknowledgements) for this quote.
If you want to ``roll your own'', you should also see Gerard Beekmans' Linux From Scratch HOWTO (LFS). LFS has detailed instructions on building a complete useable system from source code. On the LFS website, you will also find a mailing list for people building systems this way. The instructions that used to be part of this document are now in a separate document ``Building a Minimal Linux System from Source Code'', and can be found at From PowerUp to Bash Prompt home page. They explain how to ``toy'' system, purely as a learning exercise.
Packages are presented in the order in which they appear in the system startup process. This means that if you install the packages in this order you can reboot after each installation, and see the system get a little closer to giving you a bash prompt each time. There is a reassuring sense of progress in this.
I recommend that you first read the main text of each section, skipping the exercises and references. Then decide how deep an understanding you want to develop, and how much effort you are prepared to put in. Then start at the beginning again, doing the exercises and additional reading as you go.