The Little Schemer

August 11, 2013

Yesterday, I took a trip to the MIT Press Bookstore and picked up a copy of The Little Schemer. I’ve only spent a few hours reading and coding along with it, but I’ve had a lot of fun. The following is a mini-review based on my experience thus far.

“The Little Schemer” teaches you to think recursively using an interesting and comedic writing style and the Scheme programming language. While Scheme is the language of choice, the real goal is to teach you problem solving rather than the details of a specific language. The book starts off simple, explaining what atoms, lists, and S-expressions are. Rather than providing the definition and then showing examples, it first gives examples in the form of a question and answer.


Is it true that this an atom?


Yes, because atom is a string of characters beginning with a letter.

From the examples given, a definition is created. In later examples, a Scheme procedure is written that produces the correct answers for all of the questions stated before it. It’s fun to build the procedure, verify that it works for all cases, and compare your implementation with the book’s.

“The Little Schemer” defines ten commandments that are essential to correctly solving the problems in the book. Some commandments are first given in an incomplete form, and expanded later when a greater level of understanding has been achieved. The problems that you solve reinforce the commandments. You might notice that you start writing procedures without thinking much about it, much like the muscle memory earned from using Emacs a lot. Gerald J. Sussman was right when he said that this book “can perform the same service that Hanon’s finger exercises or Czerny’s piano studies perform for the student of the piano.” I have no idea who Hanon and Czerny are, but I get it. For the drummers out there, you could liken this book to Stick Control.

The writing style is very informal, comedic, and food themed. Page 13 has a space reserved for jelly stains, and page 52 tells you to “go cons a piece of cake onto your mouth.” I have laughed a number of times while reading. Oh, and let’s not forget about the cute elephant drawings. This is definitely not your average boring, dry computer science book. If you are interested in a unique and enjoyable learning experience, then I highly recommend reading “The Little Schemer”.