Charming Python #b8:

Book Roundup, Part 3


David Mertz, Ph.D.
Au courantist, Gnosis Software, Inc.
November, 2001

Since my last book roundup in November's Charming Python a number of interesting books on Python have been published. This installments provides new comparative reviews of recent Python titles (or titles missed in the last roundup).

Introduction

Python books have moved steadily to occupy larger shares of bookstore shelf space. Since I started these roundups, the number of dead-tree titles has probably doubled twice. And this says nothing of the many excellent electronic documents about Python out there on the web (including some full-length books). This article touches on a handful of Python books that have made it to my bookshelf in the last months.

Internet Related

Python and the Web

Two of the titles I have recently received cover almost the same range of material: Holden and Beazley's Python Web Programming and Thiruvathukal, Christopher and Shafaee's Web Programming in Python. Both reflect well on the excellent reputations of their respective publishers, New Riders and Prentice Hall. It is hard to recommend one of these over the other, but let me point to a few difference.

Python Web Programming has quite good introduction to XML programming in Python. Not as extensive as Python & XML (discussed below), but a solid start. Web Programming in Python, in contrast, omits XML, but provides introductions (as the full title indicates) to Linux, Apache and MySQL. Both books spend somewhere around 100 pages explaining Python itself, but Python Web Programming does quite a bit more on the general networking libraries that come with Python. Both books end with some sample concrete applications, based on the various topics covered earlier, but Web Programming in Python is probably a better choice if your goal is to use the samples as templates for your own development project--_Python Web Programming_ has a bit more of a reference/academic feel to it.

Both books contain indices, but Python Web Programming adds to that a glossary (helpful in the world of internet acronyms) and an appendix on changes in Python versions. You will not go wrong with either title (assuming you are looking for something on Python and the web), but Web Programming in Python feels a bit handier for a site-developer. Assuming you do want to use Linux, Apache and MySQL, along with Python, Web Programming in Python gives you enough to work with, without requiring two or three additional books. Of course, if you insist on using Windows or, even worse, IIS/MSSQL for your site, less of Web Programming in Python is relevant. Python Web Programming (mostly) sticks to material relevant across platforms.

Python & XML

The short of it is that Jones and Drake's Python & XML is the book you should by if you want to work with XML in Python. McGrath's XML Processing with Python, which I reviewed previously, at a certain level covers a similar range of material. But in most every respect, I prefer Jones and Drake's book. The writing in Python & XML is clear, detailed, and generally precise--certainly in comparison to the XML standards documents it paraphrases. There are a couple points where the intricacies of XML are characterized slightly wrong--such as the implication on page 27 that there are four rather than five inherent entities (omitting &)--but in general, this is the best book I have encountered for understanding XML.

As the title may or may not indicate, Python & XML is really a book about XML, not one about Python. That is, it contains no explanation of the Python language as such--readers are assumed to understand Python (but not necessarily the XML libraries). The XML libraries addressed are basically fourfold: the builtin support in Python 2.0+; the PyXML (of the XML-SIG); Fourthought Inc.'s 4Suite; and bindings for MSXML (on Windows). Brief mention is made in an appendix of some other libraries (I personally wish that some of the tools I have written for developerWorks columns were mentioned, but that may be vanity). In general, the examples in the book are compatible with Python's Standard Library XML support.

Learning The Language

Python Programming Patterns

Thomas W. Christopher's Python Programming Patterns is an unusual book in the Python repertoire. The title is obviously intended as a reference to the famous Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by the so-called "Gang of Four (GoF)"--Gamma, Helm, Johnson, Vlissides. But Python Programming Patterns is not really a recapitulation of that other title into Python examples; it tries at the same time to be a first book on Python itself. A few strikingly negative notices about Christopher's title have appeared on comp.lang.python; while I agree it has some weaknesses, I think the sentiment misunderstands the intent of the book.

I think of Python Programming Patterns not so much as a book about Python, but as a book about programming. Each chapter introduces some new Python constructs, while simultaneously using those constructs to explain a few general computer science concepts. As such, the target for Christopher's book is not so much a person trying to pick up Python as it is an introductory to middle-level course in computer science. Some of the general concepts are interesting for even an advanced programmer to review. That said, for its best matched purpose, Python Programming Patterns spends far too much time explaining basic Python constructs. Someone advanced enough to understand the "patterns" will get Python syntax quicker than this; someone just beginning programming will have the abstract concepts completely lost on them. The book could use a bit better focus, overall.

Visual QuickStart Guide: Python

The cover Chris Fehily's book for Peachpit Press boldly proclaims: "Teach yourself Python the quick and easy way! This Visual QuickStart Guide uses pictures rather than lengthy explanations. You'll be up and running in no time!" Stop for a moment, and contemplate what the publisher decides to put in 36 point font. To my mind, this is a decidedly inauspicious beginning. Then again, I think USA Today also advertises itself as "America's most widely read newspaper."

Visual QuickStart Guide: Python is chock full of pictures, on literally every page. Many of these are semi-relevant shell session samples; but quite a few others are almost completely superfluous pictures of web pages, or code listings that decide to include the window decorations of Fehily's text editor (usually under MacOS, in case anyone cares, but sometimes under Windows 2000). In some cases some genuinely helpful tables and diagrams make it in there too. Fehily's actual writing is pretty good. But he is constrained by the publisher's style which precedes every paragraph by one of a half dozen different bullet styles (each apparently indicating something about the paragraph). The little quips are well chosen and interesting, but it doesn't make for very systematic study of the Python language.

On a lark, I decided to lookup a moderately obscure topic, the .__delattr__() magic method. The index has no listing for this, and I presume it is not discussed. Fair enough, this book is for beginners. There is, however, a listing for the delattr() builtin function. On page 261 we find a heading called "Manipulating Attributes", with a subheading that describes delattr(). With the busy page, I initially thought the form del obj.attr was ommitted entirely; but it is mentioned in a little floating bullet elsewhere on the page. Even so, we are simply told that the two are equivalent (with no hint to why both exist). If I did not have a good knowledge of Python, I think I would get the impression that it was a badly thought out language (rather than one that can deal with transient object names).

Core Python Programming

I have seen a lot of good buzz around Wesley Chun's Core Python Programming. It turns all the buzz is well earned. I think this is the best book currently available for someone to use in independently learning Python (except those completely new to programming who are better off with Gauld's Learn to Program Using Python). But I would recommend Chun's book above Learning Python, Programming Python, or The Quick Python Book, all of which are good; and I would certainly receommend any of these above Programming with Python or Python: Annotated Archives, neither of which I much liked. Python 2.1 Bible was also good, but designed for a somewhat more advanced audience.

The strategy of Core Python Programming is a logical, progressive presentation of various Python features; but the book is organized well enough into chapters that it is not entirely necessary to read in order. Core Python Programming is not terrible as a reference, but it is more suited to learning Python in the first place. One thing I really like about Chun's approach is that he is generous with presenting code samples illustrating each concept (but does not attempt to build a single growing application, as some texts do--an approach I find slightly contrived). The explanation, organization, and typography is clear throughout (although the bottom margins are sometimes extremely small, even while the other margins are generous, which looks odd).

The one complaint I have with Chun's book is that it is physically larger than I would like for easy carrying. As a desk reference, the size is OK, but as a learning text, it is too big. The font is rather large, and the paper rather thick. Combined with about 800 pages of length once you count the non-numbered pages, it is a hefty book. Reducing the physical weight by 30% would be possible without losing any content, and would make for a more useful volume (maybe in the next edition).

Reference Material

Python Pocket Reference, 2nd Edition

When I last looked at Mark Lutz' Python Pocket Reference it was in its first edition. Since then, Python has gone through some new versions, and Lutz and O'Reilly have updated this thin volume. The obvious change, and what probably chiefly motivated the update, is that the 2nd edition covers Python 2. But in the process of getting updated, the Python Pocket Reference has grown from 74 to 124 pages; to my mind nudging it into somewhat more substantial territory. My previous complaints still mostly remain: there is no index, and most of the time no real advantage over the online Language and Library references. But the few extra pages make it a better book in my mind. Beyond documenting new features, a sometimes clarification is added to the explanations of existing Python features--just enough possibly to warrant carrying the book around. Of course, the cover price has correspondingly gone from US$6.95 to US$11.95, still perhaps more than it is worth for someone who does not get free review copies.

The DOSSIER Series

A company called Prime Time Freeware publishes a number of books with an interesting twist to them. All of their titles are based on documents in the public domain, or under liberal, royalty-free licenses. Two of these books--in the so-called "Documenting Open Source Software for Industry, Education and Research (DOSSIER)" series are about Python: Python: Library Reference and Python: Miscellanea. The first covers exactly what the title says, the latter includes a number of smaller documents, such as Greg Ward's "Distributing Python Modules," Fred Drake's "Documenting Python," the Python Reference Manual, the Python Tutorial, and other documents taken from python.org. One set of documents omitted would, in my opinion, be valuable to include--Andrew Kuchling's excellent series "What's New in Python X.X?" is the best way to see what has changed between versions.

There is not much I can really add about the content of these books. You can read them for yourself online, and I have previously praised the high quality of Python's standard documentation. I can observe that the DOSSIER books are nicely laid out, with a good font and paper stock, and an attractive (although common between titles) cover design. Apparently the series is physically printed in a print-on-demand arrangement, to avoid warehousing copies. As such, I might expect the documentation to be more up-to-date than Python 2.0 (the layout is some work, but it is closely based on what the Python team provides as LaTeX, Postscript, or other printable formats). Moreover, as much as I like printed books, I am not sure that $35 is really a fair price for otherwise free words (especially since commercially copyrighted books usually sell at a discount from cover price). The DOSSIER books are available through Prime Time Freeware's website (shipped by BSDMall), and do not carry an ISBN.

Resources

Python Web Programming, Steve Holden with David Beazley, New Riders, 2002. ISBN: 0-7357-1090-2.

Web Programming in Python: Techniques for Integrating Linux, Apache, and MySQL, George K. Thiruvathukal, Thomas W. Christopher & John P. Shafaee, Prentice Hall, 2002. ISBN: 0-13-041065-9.

Python Programming Patterns, Thoma W. Christopher, Prentice Hall 2002. ISBN: 0-13-040956-1.

Python & XML, Christopher A. Jones & Fred L. Drake, Jr., O'Reilly 2002. ISBN: 0-596-00128-2.

XML Processing with Python, Sean McGrath, Prentice Hall, 2000. ISBN: 0-13-021119-2.

Python Pocket Reference, 2nd Edition, Mark Lutz, O'Reilly, 2002. ISBN: 1-596-00189-4.

Prime Time Freeware's titles can be examined at:

http://ptf.com/

Andrew Kuchling's "What's New" series can be found on his website (along with some other documents and modules he has written):

http://www.amk.ca/python/

Visual QuickStart Guide: Python, Chris Fehily, Peachpit Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-201074884-3.

Core Python Programming, Wesley J. Chun, Prentice Hall, 2001. ISBN:

About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz' failures as a hunter, fisherman, and shepherd have led him to his life of critical criticism. Tomorrow he may try something else. David may be reached at mertz@gnosis.cx; his life pored over athttp://gnosis.cx/publish/. Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.