Renamed and revamped version of The Little Lisper. All the examples are written in Scheme now, but with footnotes for equivalent Lisp code when necessary.

The Little Schemer now has a sequel, called The Seasoned Schemer, which can be thought of as the second half of the story.

Some background: Scheme is a computer programming language. It's a dialect of a very old language called LISP. In general, both of those languages tend to appeal more to idealists (as in Plato and as in Abbie Hoffman) and deep thinkers than to the pragmatists you find out in the private sector. They're beautiful to an almost eerie degree.


The Little Schemer is beyond a doubt the most annoying and repulsive book I own -- and I've got a copy of My Idea of Fun around here somewhere, too.

I'd gotten the standard Scheme-larnin' book, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs by Abelson and Sussman. I found SICP a bit painful, so I thought I'd get something a little easier on my mushy little brain. The Little Schemer is highly recommended, so I picked up a copy. ("lazy, idle little schemer...")

It's got a cute little picture of a baby elephant playing with an erector set on the front cover. That seems like a bad sign, but it's traditional for the UNIXier sort of computer book to have a really moronic cartoon on the front. The Dragon Book looks dumb too, does it not? It sure does. There's no harm in that. Oh, but The Little Schemer gets worse. Much worse.

The baby elephants multiply like rabbits, but I could bear that. That's the least of my worries.

The text of the book takes everything in tiny bites: It's a series of simple questions with simple answers. They give you a concept, and then a series of examples which illustrate it. That's fine. It's a sound way to go about teaching the material, though I found the pace a bit slow and I was at times vexed by the authors' monomaniacal focus on learning exactly one concept at a time, and in the most myopic way possible. It's really, really methodical. There's a foreword by Gerald J. Sussman (of Abelson and Sussman fame, as noted above). He compares the method to finger exercises on a piano, and that seems reasonable to me.

Here's an example. They start by defining what Scheme calls an "atom".

Is it true that this is an atom?
             Yes, because atom is a string of characters beginning with the letter a.
Is it true that this is an atom?
             Yes, because turkey is a string of characters beginning with a letter [emphasis mine].
Is it true that this is an atom?
             Yes, because 1492 is a string of digits.

There are two more examples of atoms (u and *abc$), but they don't say anything about those that they didn't already say about the other three. You get the idea: An "atom", in Scheme, is any series of letters, numbers, and/or punctuation marks, not including whitespace or parentheses.

Then again, maybe they didn't make it as clear as all that, did they? Of course, that's a tedious concept to define. Later bits are considerably more interesting. Nevertheless, there's an overwhelming sense of being spoken to by a pathologically calm, soft-spoken, even-tempered middle-aged hippie. You've met the kind, I'm sure, the kind who you're just damn well certain are going to explode one day and kill nine people. The tone makes me uneasy.

Then you get to the end of the first chapter, and that's just the end. There's no way to stay with the book beyond that point. On page thirteen, after the last example in the chapter, they've got the following:

==> Now go make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. <==

Listen. Listen, hippie-boy. Don't talk to me like that. I'm a grown man. I'll eat what I goddamn well please, thank you very much, and I'll decide when.

Then it gets worse. Oh, yes, there's still room for "worse". Half the page is empty, followed by this gruesome gibberish, enclosed in a nice little box:

This space reserved for


So I got to that point, and I threw the book across the room and yelled "Fuck you!". I wanted to punch those idiots. I let the damn book lie where it fell and went back to SICP. At least I'd found out what an atom is.

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