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On Lisp: Happy 20th Birthday
73 points by brudgers on Sept 8, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 36 comments
According to Amazon: On Lisp was published September 9, 1993.

Earlier this year, I was working for a small software company whose products were mainly PHP and Perl programs held together with duct tape. Our manager was doing some spring cleaning by removing old programming books from our shelf, shouting the titles out, and tossing them in a trash bag.

After a dozen obsolete books on Windows, Visual Basic, and so on, he shouted out "On Lisp". I was already using Clojure at home, and I recognized the author, so I lunged for it. None of the other programmers had even heard of Lisp, and had no idea why we had the book, so they let me keep it. I wonder how many other old, crusty software shops have gems like that just collecting dust.

>"None of the other programmers had even heard of Lisp..."

To the HN crowd, this is almost unbelievable, but it is not the worst I've heard. This summer, going on a vacation, I sat next to a working programmer who's knowledge of programming and the programming languages begins and ends with C#. He had no knowledge of Ruby, Perl, Python, open source, git, ...

that may be due to where they learned, I am doing a HND in computer science and we are learning C# and nothing else...

before i began i knew (well enough to make use of) C, vala and a small amount of lisp and PHP

Sorry, I wasn't clear enough. The guy didn't know that such things such as open source, git, Ruby, Python, Perl,... even existed. I find it impossible to browse the web and not to run into them, but it seems to be quite possible.

most people on my course are like that. at the start about 90% didnt know what a programming language is and about 50% didnt know what WYSIWYG stands for...

I have a couple of older books that were found in the same manner. From people who studied anything computer related in the 70s and 80s. I lost some copies on a flood, but still have a small, but nice collection. Including one of those "Teach Yourself Perl Guide Books", with Internet Explorer 5 as a bonus (on a CD).

A truly horrifying story!

FYI you'll want to check its value on the used book market.

You can download it for free[1], as it went out of print some years ago.

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/onlisptext.html

There are Clojure versions of the examples from the book by Stuart Halloway [1] and Michael Fogus [2]

[1] http://thinkrelevance.com/blog/2008/12/12/on-lisp-clojure

[2] http://blog.fogus.me/tag/onlisp/

This book helped me fall in love with Lisp.

Am I a bad person for using Common Lisp for a short time (a few years) and then giving up on it completely?

It can take a few tries before things start to click. It also helps quite a lot to be using a modern variant (Clojure, probably Racket)

I tried getting back into Lisp a few months ago. With "Realm of Racket". I was bored 1/4 of the book.

And Clojure isn't for me. I'm no JVM user.

No this does not make you a bad person.

I took the better part of a year to feel quite comfortable with Lisp. A few years later, I am still learning things.

It does take you in a different direction than all of the most popular languages. Personally, it has been worth the effort.

In 2004 I was comfortable enough to release some open source code in Common Lisp. Around 2008 I stopped using it.

It basically spoiled programming in every other work language for me. Sometimes enlightenment brings pain.


How has the book aged?

Though this may sound odd, I don't know. I haven't read any of it for a long time.

About as well as anything related to Common Lisp. It's abstract enough that some of the macro patterns are reusable in Clojure, but we don't often use them in Clojure.

Anybody that wants a deeper understanding of Lisp should read, but with the understanding that it's not a shake-n-bake recipe book.

The last time I wrote an anaphoric macro (let alone the scope-capturing one), the Clojure IRC channel had a heart-attack.

I read it about ten years ago. Do not remember anything, because I was never able to find work as a Common Lisp programmer. Would have been fun. I know that things in the lisp community change very slowly, and wanted to know if the book was still relevant. Might give it a second go.

Is Clojure "lighter" (for a lack of a better term) than lisp?

Clojure is more pliable, yet more robust.

Easier to learn in some respects, yet deeper if you look for it.

I've found it easier to teach Clojure than I had Common Lisp in the past, yet Clojure has helped me to grow more as a programmer.

There's very little that you can do in CL, that you cannot in Clojure. That which you can't is often very limited and unimportant ultimately.

There are many things that are either impossible or hopelessly painful in Common Lisp that are commonplace in Clojure.

It is shocking how much code I write in Clojure is either:

1. Stateless

2. Stateful and multi-threaded, yet thread-safe.

May you tell what type of systems do you work with? i.e., Web, server, enterprise intranet, etc.

Web (frontend and backend), SOA, data warehousing, scale-out.

>> the Clojure IRC channel

What's the full address?

#clojure on irc.freenode.net

any time.

Looking forward to time tourism. Would be great fun to go back to 1993 and chat about On Lisp, get in touch with Chris Carter about his upcoming series, and catch the In Utero tour. (Among other things.)

Sorry to be boringly practical but if you go remember :

winner 1993 world baseball series - Toronto Blue Jays. Now take the winnings and buy Netscape stock:-)

Happy birthday !

Discussion 2 weeks ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6273692

In the discussion was mentioned this link (thanks @nonrecursive!) with instructions to print your own copy on lulu :


Congratulations, PG!

Goodness, that makes me feel old. I remember On Lisp very fondly.

Price at Amazon starts at $100 and goes up to $1900.


But shows how much a classic it is.

Fascinating - 1900 bucks for a book that has a free PDF download must be a bot pricing war. Amazed to hear those are still up and running,

happy birthday

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