Linux is a free "open-source" operating system based on Unix. It was initially developed by Linus Torvalds in Finland. Open-source means that anyone with computer programming skills can make improvements to Linux by making changes to the computer source code, provided they post their changes back up on the Internet for others to take advantage of.
Most computer stores sell packaged versions of Linux. They generally include Linux with some additional Linux software on a CD-ROM, as well as a printed manual. they'll often sell a box with Linux on a CD-ROM, plus other things like a printed manual. This is more convenient than waiting to download everything yourself, but can be expensive. CheapBytes offers Linux on CD - no manuals included - for as little as US$2 per CD, plus a flat shipping fee of US$5 to ship up to 18 CDs anywhere within the U.S. and Canada.
Linux comes in many distributions, developed by many different people and companies. Every distribution works differently - it's all very confusing. Some include the graphical interface, "X Window"; some are text-only. Some take up dozens of megabytes of disk space; some fit on a single floppy disk. You can read about them all at the linux.org distribution list.
Hal91 is an interesting distribution of Linux. It was brought to you by Øyvind Kolås in Norway. However, Øyvind has stopped working on hal91, and his webpage no longer even mentions it. Hal91 works on any PC with a 486 or Pentium processor. Although not as full-featured as other Linux distributions, it fits on a single floppy disk, and you don't need to modify the hard drive in any way. (You just start the computer up with your hal91 disk in the floppy drive.) It's a good way to try Linux yourself.
When you're ready for a graphical interface and additional software, it's time to move on to a full-fledged Linux distribution. Due to the shoddy quality of the manuals included with many boxed Linux distributions, you're best off buying a book about Linux with an included CD-ROM.
If you already have some Linux experience and are looking for some more advanced information, spring for Linux: the Complete Reference. This 1,257-page volume is the ultimate Linux reference manual, describing how to install, run, and get optimum results from any Linux program, utility, or major distribution you could possibly think of. It fully explains (and provides abundant screenshots) describing how to configure the system, how to write programs for Linux, and even how to recompile the kernel step-by step. The book is very useful for users of any distribution, but it goes into extra detail about Red Hat Linux 7.0 and Caldera OpenLinux 2.4 - because both are included! Click here to pick up this invaluable 1,257-page powerhouse for just $27.99 at Amazon.com. You definitely won't regret it.
For novice Linux users, I recommend Red Hat Linux 7 for Dummies without a doubt. Unlike most other Linux books and manuals, it requires no previous Linux knowledge at all. Plus, it includes the full 3-CD-ROM version of Red Hat Linux 7.0! Click here to buy it from Amazon.com for the reasonable price of $20.99. You'll be fluent with Linux in no time.
If you're more of a visual learner, try Master Red Hat Linux Visually instead. As with Red Hat Linux 7 for Dummies, you'll need no previous Linux knowledge whatsoever. You'll learn everything about Linux through screenshots and step-by-step instructions. From installation, customization and using the GNOME graphical interface to networking, administration, and security. As an added bonus, the book includes Red Hat Linux 6.2 on two CD-ROMs. Click here to get it from Amazon.com for only $24.49. You'll quickly learn Linux the visual way.