Book Review: Python Standard Library by Example

Quick Facts:

  • Author: Doug Hellmann
  • Pages: 1344
  • Publisher: Addison-Wesley (Developer’s Library)
  • ETA: June 5, 2011
  • Amazon link:

What this book says it does:

From the book’s description:

This book is a collection of essays and example programs demonstrating how to use more than 100 modules from Python standard library. It goes beyond the documentation available on to show real programs using the modules and demonstrating how you can use them in your daily programming tasks.

What this book actually does:

This book actually kinda rocks, in part because of its a unique take on documentation of the Python standard library. The Python standard library documentation is actually a pretty good high-level reference, and this book doesn’t seek to duplicate what’s there. Instead, it specifically seeks out places in the existing documentation that are underdocumented, undocumented, don’t have clear enough examples, or just don’t provide the value to the end user that they should for whatever reason. Even as good as the standard library documentation is, Doug easily cranked out 1000+ pages of invaluable information that has given me a much greater insight into the standard library modules that I use on a regular basis (and plenty that I don’t use on a regular basis).

How it works

The book is simply laid out by module. Using the multiprocessing module? It’s right there in the Table of Contents. It’s as easy to use as the standard library docs from a navigational perspective, and the index, it could be argued, is an improvement over’s  search behavior.

When you get to the module you’re looking for, you’ll primarily see code. There is enough English text to explain what the code actually does, but the main illustrative tool in this book is the code. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, but Doug provides a very nice and balanced presentation of the real meaty parts of your favorite standard library modules.

What’s Great About it

First, it provides both depth and breadth, it’s easy to find whatever you’re looking for, and if it’s not needed (usually because it’s well-covered in the standard library docs) it’s not there.

Second, the book is written by an authoritative, knowledgeable, experienced, and prolific Python developer. While he’s a creative thinker, his work is balanced by a healthy dose of pragmatism and grounded in best practices. Contrived as the examples might get at times, you won’t typically find code written by Doug that would garner sideways glances by experienced Python developers.

Third, it’s not a rehashing of the docs. In fact it skips coverage of things that are well-documented in the docs. Yes, the book does contain simple introductory material for each module to give the uninitiated some context, but that’s different from a book that takes existing docs and just moves the letters around. Doug does a great job of getting you into the good stuff without much fluff.

Fourth, there’s almost zero fluff. I’d love to see a statistical breakdown of the number of lines of code vs. text in this book. And the good part really isn’t that he’s put so much code in the book, it’s that he presents with code alongside the text in a way that insures readers don’t get lost.

Fifth, this wasn’t a rush job. Doug has been writing this content in the form of his Python Module of the Week blog series for a few years now. Most of the work was editing, finessing, updating, and testing (and retesting) the code, not developing the content from scratch. So what’s there in the book is not just a braindump from Doug’s brain: it’s had the benefit of peer review and feedback from the blog, email, etc., and that adds a ton of value to the final product in my eyes.

What’s Not Great About it

I insist on including bad things about everything I review, because nothing is perfect, and the more people talk about things they don’t like, the more makers start to listen and make things better.

To be honest, the only thing I found lacking in this book is the index. This should not shock anyone who is a tech bibliophile. Most indexes, at least on tech books, are pretty bad (ironic since tech books often serve as references, which makes the index pretty crucial). Also, consider that this review is based on a review copy of the book, so it’s possible that the final version will have a totally awesome index.

Ah, one other thing (which also might be due to this being a review copy): there are no tab markers. Since Python defines scope using whitespace, not having indentation markers in any medium containing page breaks can lead to confusion if a code sample crosses page boundaries. The alternative to having the markers is to insure that the code samples don’t cross page boundaries. It’s not possible for me to know if they’ll do one or both of these before the final printing.

The Final Word

My petty complaints about the index and indentation markers are not only trivial, but they both may be fixed in the final printing. I saw nothing so bad that I wouldn’t highly recommend this book, and I’ve seen tons and tons of stuff that would make me highly recommend this book. I’m using this book myself on a fairly regular basis, and it’s an effective, easy-to-use tool that makes a great companion reference to the standard library.

Buy it.

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  • Gronk

    The author’s surname is not mentioned. Some facts about the book would be nice.

  • m0j0

    Fixed. Thanks.

  • Doug Hellmann

    Thanks for such a kind review, Brian!

    I am responsible for the index in the review copy you have. The final version of the index was put together by a professional, and I am very happy with the results. It includes far more topics than the rough version I had at the time we put the review copy together, and the entries are cross-indexed under several headings.

    The whitespace formatting issue is a good point. In the final edition, we tried to ensure that page breaks were inserted in a way that made the code as readable as possible. Brandon Rhode’s book “Python Network Programming” includes an interesting solution to the problem using visible markers, and I am going to see if I can apply it to my future work.