Reasons to Recommend Common Lisp

On Reddit, /u/rhabarba asks: Should I learn (Common) Lisp? Here’s my reply:

I am a technical writer and “hobbyist” programmer who does some unofficial programming at work to automate documentation things. To give you a sense of my language background, I enjoy programming in Perl, Python, Scheme, and Common Lisp.

Reasons to recommend Common Lisp include:

  • In many ways, it’s a superset of the other languages I mentioned: you can “script” with regular expression and filesystem support, and you can also write larger programs using built-in OO that’s still more advanced than the built-in Perl or Python stuff.
  • Multi-paradigm: you can write code in whatever style you want to solve your problem. You only use OO if you want to, you’re not forced by the language. Functional style is there for you, especially via libraries. You can also be imperative and bash as much state as you want. Almost any type of code you might want to write can be (probably has been?) written in Common Lisp. There’s a lot of room to grow as you learn more.
  • Dynamic, interactive, and inspectable: redefine almost anything on the fly at the REPL, watch those changes get picked up by the rest of your system as it runs. This is true for running web servers, whatever. The debugger and inspector available via SLIME in Emacs is also better than anything else I’ve used in other languages.
  • Multiple good implementations to choose from; there are several fast “native” compilers, several portable interpreter-based implementations. If you write portable code you can run on many different implementations, so you can mix and match depending on what’s easiest to install or use for your needs.
  • Quicklisp lets you install any of 1200* libraries, very easily. You’ve got all the basics: HTTP clients and servers, JSON, XML, and Markdown parsers, and lots more advanced stuff too.
  • 25 year old code that does advanced, weird, or just cool things still works fine. It just runs way faster now.
  • Good books: ‘Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming’ by Peter Norvig, ‘Object-Oriented Programming in Common Lisp’ by Sonya Keene, and many others.

Finally, I have been able to write programs to do “harder” things in Lisp than I have in other languages, even though I’m not really a programmer or “engineer” or whatever title you prefer. I think the simple list data structure is a great way to bootstrap a prototype of your program, and it encourages data-structure thinking rather than “stringy” thinking as some languages do. That said, I use a lot of languages to get my work done, so it’s not a religion or anything.

Good luck!


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