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Learning Python, 4th Edition 163

thatpythonguy writes "Learning Python is a well-written book by an experienced Python trainer that has served the Python community well since the first edition was published in 1999. Now, at its fourth edition, this book by Mark Lutz arguably continues to be Python's bible." Read on for the rest of Ahmed's review.
Learning Python, 4th Edition
author Mark Lutz
pages 1216
publisher O'Reilly Media
rating 9/10
reviewer Ahmed Al-Saadi
ISBN 0596158068
summary A hands-on book that will help you be productive with Python 3.0 quickly
This book is addressed as an introductory text to programmers new to Python. Although people with no programming experience are not discouraged from reading it, they are warned that time is mostly spent teaching Python, not programming fundamentals. I agree with this picture, though from my own experience and those of others, the book is equally valuable to more experienced Python programmers both as a pseudo-reference and as an introduction to more advanced topics. The critical point here is that the book does not make assumptions about educational or vocational experiences and provides many examples; this renders the book approachable by a large audience.

Both Python 2.6 and 3.x are covered in this edition. However, the latest 3.x line is considered the reference from which variations in 2.6 are discussed when appropriate. This approach is logical; the new Python 3.x presents a major change to the language, but is not sufficiently dominant to warrant exclusive treatment.

This book discusses the Python language and excludes the Python standard and non-standard libraries. The latter are discussed in other places including Lutz's own Programming Python which stands at its third edition at the time of writing of this article. I find this division necessary because of size considerations and, in fact, this division did not exist in the first edition of the book! However, there is one topic that does not seem to fit the language/libraries divide, and that topic is packaging and deployment.

I will argue that there are not many (if any) books that discuss packaging and deployment of Python programs well. I will also argue that this topic should be included in the book being reviewed here since it is so essential to real Python programming. Since Lutz discusses the Python runtime environment, I do not think it detracts from the book's coherence to include a chapter on packaging.It is possible that the proliferation of various packaging and deployment options such as distutils, setuptools, pip, buildout, virtualenv, paver, fabric and others, is the reason for this exclusion. Or it could be that these tools are in a state of major flux that any text will become quickly outdated. If size is the reason for this exclusion, maybe Lutz or someone else can publish 'Packaing and Deploying Python' as a separate volume.

The book starts by building a case for the use of Python. Both the features of the language and its prominent users are discussed to build credibility. Then, the runtime environment is discussed: how to run programs in various ways on various operating systems and language interpreters.

Types and statements, which are at the core of any language, are discussed next. Notably, there is an excellent discussion of the topic of iterators and generators (also discussed in a later chapter). Functions, modules and classes are then introduced. The text also includes a discussion of general object-oriented programming (OOP) principles which I find to be invaluable as it brings the topic of classes to life.

Exceptions are introduced and discussed in detail. The placement here is appropriate since exceptions are now objects in Python so classes had to be discussed first. This chapter should prove to be especially useful for people migrating from other languages that do not have simple, yet effective, exception-handling constructs.

Finally, four advanced topics are covered: decorators, Unicode, managed attributes, meta-classes. I find the first two to be absolutely necessary for almost any system nowadays, even small ones! The atter two are not as ubiquitous, but should be useful to more experienced programmers.

I should mention here that the discussion of the topics discussed above does not stop at the basics but provides comprehensive coverage. This is evident in the discussion of concepts such as dynamic typing, inheritance order, iterators, generators, comprehensions, and functional programming, among many others. There is even an interlude on documentation and the pydoc library.

Like many programming texts, the book uses small programming examples (appropriately executed in the Python interactive shell). The small examples hope to capture the essence of the topic at hand, and that, it does well within the limitations of a small-scale context. But this fourth edition adds a new chapter on classes (Chapter 27) that contains a more realistic code example presented in a tutorial format.

In addition to examples, each chapter ends with a summary of the chapter's content as well as a quiz on that content. The quiz is immediately followed by its answers for easy reference. I have to admit that I do not use any of these two features, so I will not be able to comment on their efficacy.

Like many O'Reilly books, this is a well-written, coherent, and beautifully type-set book. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to, or already does, program using python. It should help the novice in the transition to an excellent programming language or, otherwise, make an already familiar environment more powerful in the hands of veterans.

Ahmed Al-Saadi is a Software Analyst who works for a Montreal Python house. He wrote his first lines of code on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+, though unfortunately not in Python at the time.

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Learning Python, 4th Edition

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:17PM (#31235988)

    Ruby failed to make a dent in Python popularity, despite the rails fad over the last few years. Lua isn't really a match for either python or ruby.

    Javascript may be the black horse here, because it serves an unique niche and is starting to get adoption outside that niche.

  • by mindcorrosive ( 1524455 ) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:01PM (#31236854)

    Endless bits about immutability, without hints as to why I ought to care. I can appreciate the use of the interactive prompt now, but to start with it seems ... strange.

    The thing about mutability in Python is that it can bite you in the neck if you assume the variable passing and assignment work as in some other popular languages. I can appreciate the author's tirades about this, as he brought his point around, even with simple examples. And how do you propose to start with a language that doesn't have one-IDE-to-rule-them-all, like Visual Studio or Eclipse? You know how sparse is IDLE by today's standards.

    Little discussion of how you might have accomplished tasks in other languages and wish to do the Pythonic equivalent.

    That's why there's this other book, "Programming Python", again by Lutz, where he discusses the practical aspects of Python programming, and using the standard library modules. There are examples of the "Pythonic" way to do this or that, instead of masking C/C++ syntax with Python expressions. The discussions of modules, packages and classes is extensive, and down to the details of how they work and are used.

    I understand your frustration, and can't comment on the first edition that you've seen. I've preordered the fourth edition - this one - (the whole 1000 or so pages), and I found it a very good self-educational tool - I managed to learn most of the ins-and-outs of the language in just one week, without having prior exposure to Python (I've got experience with 3-4 other programming languages, admittedly). I'd recommend it highly for anyone that wants to learn Python (the language) quickly.

    Of course, this is my opinion, so take it as you may.

  • JS vs. Lua (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) < minus pi> on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:18PM (#31237144) Homepage Journal

    JavaScript is such a hack, and such a pathetic excuse for even a scripting language.

    What makes JavaScript so much more of a hack than Lua? Both use prototype-based object systems. Perhaps your complaint is with the HTML DOM, but that would be the same whether you used Lua, Python, or JavaScript on top of it.

  • by happy_place ( 632005 ) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:51PM (#31238328) Homepage
    O'Reilly "Learning X" (fill in X with your programming language of choice) are not "BIBLE"s. They're learning texts. For the real meat of the language, decent reference and altogether comprehensive understanding of life and the universe, you'd want to pick up O'Reilly "Programming X" books. So in this case, Programming Python would be a Bible, a book you return to again and again. The Programming series of books, for most experienced programmers is generally just as good a place to start learning the language, and you don't need the Learning series.
  • by thatpythonguy ( 1726724 ) on Monday February 22, 2010 @07:36PM (#31238788)
    I (the author of this review) use Python exclusively (if you don't count specialized and supporting languages). If you are looking for high-profile users, try Google. Python is one of three "officially supported languages" (the others being C++ and Java; "official" does not mean that other languages are not used!). I would guess that all other large software houses use Python somehow. Besides being a great language in its own right, it is a great systems/prototyping language! Also, it is perfect if you like to code without undue pain ;)
  • by McNally ( 105243 ) <> on Monday February 22, 2010 @08:09PM (#31239134) Homepage

    A whole brand tarnished on one product out of hundreds (if not thousands)?! You're harsh man!

    Well, here's the thing. I spent most of the years of my career living in a university town with excellent booksellers. I now live in a comparatively tiny island community a long way from the nearest tech center and if I want tech books I can't just pop into a store that has them in stock and browse, I have to order them and have them shipped.

    I've previously bought quite a few O'Reilly titles and while not every one of them was brilliant, they were reliably pretty decent; this one was affirmatively the worst, to the point where in the future when I want a tutorial or reference work on a new technology I won't just call up and order the O'Reilly book on the subject because I don't feel like I can rely on their quality and I don't need any more $40 door stops.

    It doesn't mean I'll never order another O'Reilly tome, but it does mean that I felt let down enough to stop automatically trusting their quality by default.

  • by binary paladin ( 684759 ) <> on Monday February 22, 2010 @09:32PM (#31239906)

    Disclaimer: I love Python.

    That said, I love Python IN SPITE of its way of enforcing white space. I've had many annoying debugging issues that are the result of whitespace being broken when moving from one editor to another and it makes using blocks inside the interactive shell more annoying than it needs to be.

    Most of my coding these days is in Ruby and while it doesn't enforce how you use whitespace, only a complete tool doesn't indent their code. I find that having some keyword or symbol (e.g. end or }) also makes code easier to read than just ending as a result of the indent dropping (which is not easy to see in some cases and is even more annoying if you have to use an editor without some way of visually denoting line breaks and tabs).

    The Zen of Python should be followed by virtually every language out there though. There isn't a language on the planet that wouldn't be more readable if those conventions were followed.

Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced. - John Keats