Path to Common Lisp

I have always been extremely intrigued by Common Lisp ever since I can remember. The sheer simplicity of the basic concepts of this language (which is essentially Lambda Calculus in disguise) is what drew me on to it, and for a long time, it remained just that – an enigma that attracted me every so often and yet left me exasperated with the paucity of good materials and an active community. However, of late, I have been giving it a real serious go. The immediate impetus has to be this excellent collection of interviews by Vsevolod Dyomkin (available here – Lisp Hackers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information about the latest generation of Lisp hackers. The common theme that is to be found though is that Common Lisp itself is not used as much as it is worked upon.

My current undertaking of Lisp is a rather determined one and I daresay that I have made good progress. Another advantage of this is that Scheme and Clojure (which I had tried before but didn’t like that much) are but a small leap from here. My main interest is however in mastering Lisp concepts well enough so that I can use it for my own personal projects to begin with, and then see where that leads me (I really do envy Zach Beane in this regard – the man hacks on Lisp full time at Clozure Associates!).

In this introductory post (after a long long hiatus from blogging), I would like to begin with describing my own path to Common Lisp (and I believe this should help act as a rough guide for any beginners embarking upon the Lisp journey!):

  • Start off with Land of Lisp – arguably the most user-friendly (and yet powerful) introduction to Common Lisp today. It is extremely well-structured and fun to work with. In my opinion, most of the “games” in later chapters can be safely skipped to begin with. They can taken up after a solid understanding of Lisp fundamentals is in place.
  • Next up is Practical Common Lisp. Never mind what the reviews say, this is definitely not a great first book for absolute beginners in Common Lisp. The book makes a lot more sense after finishing Land of Lisp. In my experience, some of the chapters are well-written, quite a few are slipshod and follow a bizarre series of crammed and cryptic notes (especially the chapter on CLOS), but the practical chapters are absolutely necessary to get the hands-on experience that makes one a well-rounded programmer. Overall, a great book.
  • Now one should be in a position to tackle the venerable (if opinionated) Paul Graham’s anthology – ANSI Common Lisp and On Lisp (in that order). This is where I am as well on my own journey in Common Lisp.
  • One must-read book is Let Over Lambda by Doug Hoyte. This is a good follow-up book to Paul Graham’s classics (and even on its own, a great way to expand your perspective – the first few chapters made me really “get” Closures and true Lexical Scoping at long last).
  • Tons of hands-on (this should be orthogonal to this list in any case. Practical sessions are what really teach one…well, anything really). Some few resources to get started off would be – and 99 Problems in Lisp. The latter is really useful for practising Functional Programming in Common Lisp.
  • Just a quick note on development environments. I personally use emacs + SLIME + SBCL. SBCL is a very efficient implementation of Common Lisp. CLisp works fine too, but it’s rather very slow (understandably so since it’s not compiled to machine code like SBCL is). Some other flavours are – Clozure CL, LispWorks, and AllegroCL. The latter two are commercial distros, but they do offer personal editions which work just fine for most purposes. The fun bit is that SLIME can connect to any of these flavours in any case, so your development environment can remain consistent irrespective of which Lisp flavour you choose to work with.

    I suppose that should about do it for an introductory post on Common Lisp! Happy Hacking!


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