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Mike Riley

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Python Essential Reference, Fourth Edition Book Review

August 04, 2009

Attaining its 10th year anniversary, David Beazley's Python Essential Reference has matured along with the Python language itself.  Does the book provide better insight than Python's own online documentation?  Read on to find out.

When I first opened this book, I had fairly low expectations.  I have been writing various Python scripts since 1996, the same year the book's author discovered the language.  As such, I have been comfortable with Python's online documentation and occasional Google search results for some time.  I assumed the book was a reprint of sorts of the online docs with a couple lines of demo code mixed in.  I was wrong.  Python Essential Reference is exactly what the title says - it's *essential*.

This book is not a Python tutorial, though those new to Python could use it, albeit with some difficulty, as a way to learn the language.  Rather, it is a concise yet wonderfully comprehensive reference of Python's core libraries.  While the author could have taken the easy path of regurgitating the online documentation, he has instead reworked the explanation for each class and function call in the Python core library with commendable clarity, frequently accompanying these detailed examinations with extremely useful and meaningful code examples.  The book is also very well designed and organized, making it a snap to find information within a matter of seconds.

The Fourth Edition confronts the transitional phase the Python language and community are in today head on.  The bridge between Python 2.6 and 3.0 is approached in a very intelligent, non-redundant way by the author.  As he states in the book's introduction, "I have chosen to omit features of Python 2 that have been removed from Python 3.  Likewise, I don't focus on features of Python 3 that have been back-ported."  Doing so not only reduces the "Python 3 only" call-out clutter but also keeps the book a relevant reference well after the world adopts Python 3 en masse.

Chapters progress in a logical, organized way.  After the obligatory and thankfully brief introduction tutorial to Python syntax and constructs, covering the usual menagerie of objects, types, control flow, functions, classes, i/o, packaging/distribution, testing/debugging and profiling/tuning in Part 1, Part 2 supplies the bulk of the book's thickness (nearly 400 pages).  Topics detail Python's built-in functions and the various libraries responsible for math, data access, file/directory handling, threads/concurrency, network/internet/web programming and other miscellaneous libraries.  Part 3 contains a brief chapter on extending and embedding Python and an appendix dedicated to all things Python 3 (explicit new language features, common pitfalls and migrating Python 2.x code to 3.0 valid).  Finally, one often overlooked but extremely important component in any technical book is the index.  A poorly formatted or sparse index, especially for a reference title, is unacceptable.  Fortunately, Python Essentials includes an index so well organized and typeset that it puts many other tech book indexes (particularly some of the more recent book's I have read) to shame.

The book's binding has held up well to stretching it on a desk along with rapid page flipping to indexed locations.  In fact, whenever I enter my Python coding mindset, I have become far more comfortable thumbing through this reference versus Googling thanks mostly due to the author's explanations, even compared to Python's own online references. Again, what I really appreciated about the book was its no-nonsence approach to core library function explanations and its clutter-free, efficiently organized and polished presentation. 

If you are a fan of the Python language (or are interested in becoming one) and wish to deepen your knowledge of the language and its core libraries, Python Essential Reference is a book you must have on your bookshelf.


Title: Python Essential Reference, Fourth Edition
Author: David M. Beazley
Publisher: Addison-Wesley Professional
ISBN: 978-0672329784
Pages: 744
Price: $44.99 US


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