Getting to grips with Python

Let's be honest: there are some books that are just made for lazy Sunday afternoons, and then there's O'Reilly's Nutshell series. With the Nutshells the goal is to cram as much information as possible into a single authoritative volume.

Python in a Nutshell - A Desktop Quick Reference by Alex Martelli (O’Reilly, 2003, $99)

Let’s be honest: there are some books that are just made for lazy Sunday afternoons, and then there’s O’Reilly’s Nutshell series. With the Nutshells the goal is to cram as much information as possible into a single authoritative volume. Relaxing reading they might not be, but as single reference sources, the Nutshell series are, in my experience, hard to beat.

Organised into five main sections, Getting Started, Core Python Language, Library and Extensions, Network and Web Programming, and Extending and Embedding, Python in a Nutshell provides both an excellent overview and in-depth reference of the object-oriented nature and extensible power that is Python. Python in a Nutshell covers Python up to version 2.2, which is the latest stable release. Python version 2.3 is slated for final release any day now but this does not in any way lessen the value of this title.

The Nutshell series is very much designed as reference works, so Python in a Nutshell, where appropriate, is more like a dictionary, with alphabetical listings and brief explanations rather than explanatory text. It offers terse guidance on key parts of Python and for the experienced Pythonista serves as a useful memory-jogger/instant knowledge transfer vehicle.

Reflecting the open source heritage of Python, Python in a Nutshell includes directions for installing on various platforms including Windows, Linux and Mac, plus information on compiling it from source. It also includes helpful references to other publications and online sources of information.

Notwithstanding the reputation of the series, there are a couple of caveats to be aware of. It’s not suitable if you want a simple Python primer, nor if you want to learn to program full stop. Learning Python by Mark Hammond or Learn to Program with Python by Alan Gauld are better introductions to this open source language and to learning programming respectively. However, for experienced programmers, Python in a Nutshell offers a quick jump-start to all that the language has to offer, and I’m sure experienced Pythonistas will keep it close to the keyboard at all times.

Casement is publisher of Computerworld.

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