by Cameron Laird
Edited by Alex Martelli, David Ascher
O'Reilly, July 2002
606 pages, $39.95
Python Cookbook (PC) is superb.
Demonstrably so, in fact. Most book reviews are matters of judgment
and discrimination, dependent on the taste and wisdom of the reviewer.
PC's quality is so unique that it deserves a different, more
objective style of review.
Here's why I know too much. I'm an acquaintance and/or collaborator
not only of PC's editors, but also of several of the other
contributors and staffers of publisher O'Reilly's Cookbook
series. For several months, I thought I was too close to do PC
That was a mistake particularly in light of the missed opportunity
to recommend PC as a seasonal stocking stuffer for the programmers
in your life. PC is so good that it's hard to go wrong buying
a copy for yourselves or others.
I write that with confidence because the words aren't mine. Shortly
after PC hit the bookshelves at the end of summer, Python
programmers began talking about it at interest group meetings,
over lunch, and in all sorts of online forums. Agreement was near universal
that the book is extraordinary.
A proper review of the book, then, depends less on my critical assessment
of it, and more on the ability simply to report what the community of
Python programmers has to say about it. Developer Edward Ream, for example,
praised it in the comp.lang.python Usenet newsgroup:
"This really is an awe-inspiring book for the breadth of its coverage
and the complete excellence of its presentation. The authors and especially
the editors deserve the highest praise. Even when explaining the most
elementary topics the editors manage to be interesting and even surprising.
...In short, this is just a superb job. It shows the power of a community
of users enhanced by the editing of stars."
Quality of writing
Reader reactions to PC are closer to those of a New
Yorker or Granta feature than a language manual; many
programmers talk about how they go back and re-read sections of PC
to savor the quality of the exposition, and to discover new layers of
PC is, in fact, two books packed into something less than
600 pages. The recipes are certainly indispensable for a working Python
programmer. A "Discussion" follows each one, in the usual O'Reilly Cookbook
style. These Discussions are so meaty, eloquent, and well-informed that
they could stand by themselves as a valuable course in software engineering.
The recipes themselves are generally more ambitious than in other Cookbooks.
The Perl Cookbook, for example, is more than 700 pages, and
was itself edited with considerable precision and insight. For the most
part, though, it seems rarely to elevate its vision to the heights of
PC. While the Perl Cookbook "tops out" with
calculations of prime factors, randomized arrays, regular expression techniques,
and a binary tree manager, PC gracefully tackles a (readably!)
three-line quicksort implementation, Unicode manipulation, a ring buffer,
generation of random passwords, interactive GUI construction, lazy database
connection, sophisticated network programming, Windows-specific tricks,
fascinating metaprogramming and introspection, and much more. I think
we still don't know how to partition this achievement accurately between
the virtues of the Python language, its community of practitioners, and
the editors of PC. What's certain, though, is that the combination
is a winning one.
Experienced programmer Fernando Perez wrote at length about the contrast
between PC and other references. Most of us keep various
language books at hand to ensure we've got syntax right, or to jog our
memories about the details of library members. With PC, in
"Instead of being devoted to reminding you how to do things
you should be able to do without a book, it's mostly a discussion of the
type 'here's a common problem for which naive solutions can have subtle
pitfalls, and here are various ways to tackle it with real intelligence
and power'. ... [PC] reads almost more like an algorithms/computer
science book than a 'Python' book."
Perez also echoes many other readers in praising the editors' balancing
"Even though it has many authors for the recipes, the book managed
to remain very cohesive in tone and style. You can feel enough differences
to hear the 'community voices', but not to the point of being distracted
This is the challenge co-editor Alex Martelli calls, "unifying without
homogenizing", and PC achieves it gratifyingly.
If you work with Python, you'll want your own copy of PC.
It joins the Python
Essential Reference on the top rung of Python-oriented books,
just ahead of Learning
Web Programming, and The
Python Standard Library in universality and quality. While
the collection of Python books is quite good as a whole (see also this
earlier issue of UnixReview.com, for example), the merits of these five
distinguish them from the rest.
Even if your primary programming interest is in a language other than
Python, you should consider PC. Its ideas apply
more or less easily to work in Java, Ruby, Perl, and others.
As Vice President of Phaseit,
Inc., Cameron Laird programs in Python most days. He frequently reviews
books for UnixReview, and co-authors the monthly "Regular