The Little Schemer Will Expand/Blow Your Mind

The Little Schemer is a fun and unique programming book. Here's why you should read it and how to get started.

I thought I'd take a break from the usual web dev content we post here to tell you about my favorite technical book, The Little Schemer, by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen: why you should read it, how you should read it, and a couple tools to help you on your journey.

Why read The Little Schemer

It teaches you recursion. At its core, TLS is a book about recursion -- functions that call themselves with modified versions of their inputs in order to obtain a result. If you're a working developer, you've probably worked with recursive functions if you've (for example) modified a deeply-nested JSON structure. TLS starts as a gentle introduction to these concepts, but things quickly get out of hand.

It teaches you functional programming. Again, if you program in a language like Ruby or JavaScript, you write your fair share of anonymous functions (or lambdas in the parlance of Scheme), but as you work through the book, you'll use recursion to build lambdas that do some pretty amazing things.

It teaches you (a) Lisp. Scheme/Racket is a fun little language that's (in this author's humble opinion) more approachable than Common Lisp or Clojure. It'll teach you things like prefix notation and how to make sure your parentheses match up. If you like it, one of those other languages is a great next step.

It's different, and it's fun. TLS is computer science as a distinct discipline from "making computers do stuff." It'd be a cool book even if we didn't have modern personal computers. It's halfway between a programming book and a collection of logic puzzles. It's mind-expanding in a way that your typical animal drawing tech book can't approach.

How to read The Little Schemer

Get a paper copy of the book. You can find PDFs of the book pretty easily, but do yourself a favor and pick up a dead-tree copy. Make yourself a bookmark half as wide as the book, and use it to cover the right side of each page as you work through the questions on the left.

Actually write the code. The book does a great job showing you how to write increasingly complex functions, but if you want to get the most out of it, write the functions yourself and then check your answers against the book's.

Run your code in the Racket REPL. Put your functions into a file, and then load them into the interactive Racket console so that you can try them out with different inputs. I'll give you some tools to help with this at the end.

Skip the rote recursion explanations. This book is a fantastic introduction to recursion, but by the third or fourth in-depth walkthrough of how a recursive function gets evaluated, you can probably just skim. It's a little bit overkill.

And some tools to help you get started

Once you've obtained a copy of the book, grab Racket (brew install racket) and rlwrap (brew install rlwrap), subbing brew for your platform's package manager. Then you can start an interactive session with rlwrap racket -i, which is a much nicer experience than calling racket -i on its own. In true indieweb fashion, I've put together a simple GitHub repo called Little Schemer Workbook to help you get started.

So check out The Little Schemer. Just watch out for those jelly stains.

David Eisinger

David is Viget's managing development director. From our Durham, NC, office, he builds high-quality, forward-thinking software for PUMA, the World Wildlife Fund, ID.me, and many others.

More articles by David