Thinking of Learning Python? Start here!

Python is one of the friendliest general-purpose programming languages out there. It is free to use, well supported and used by many big companies. Since its introduction in 1991, it may not have taken the world by storm, but has gained a huge share of programmers’ interest. As of this writing (November 2014), Python is number 8 on the TIOBE Index.

Recently I have been studying bioinformatics, and in the course of my studies I have met many people who are learning to program for the first time, and doing it with Python. Others have a little bit of programming experience, but not in Python. Luckily Python is an excellent language for both groups, because it is clean and easy to learn, but it can still be powerful and expressive.

Beginners, step this way

Learning programming is not easy, but some of the things you need to understand are the same no matter what programming language you study. That is why I recommend Think Python by Allen Downey to all beginners. I’ve been programming for close to 30 years now, and I think that this book is one of the most accessible introductions to programming in general, and Python in particular. The subtitle of the book is “How to think like a computer scientist”, which essentially means “problem solving”. You need to be able to take apart what you are trying to achieve, and then find ways to make the computer do what you mean.

Think Python

Think Python is free to download from Green Tea Press in PDF format. However, if you want a printed book, you can buy one from O’Reilly.

Seasoned experts, check this out

I first learned Python in the early 2000s, when the language was still relatively unknown, but already had a lot of users. Since I learn best from a good book, I spent some time looking for one about Python, and quickly found Learning Python by Mark Lutz. At the time it was not a lean book anymore: the 2nd edition, which covers Python 2.3, already came up to almost 600 pages. Still, it is an easygoing book which has only gotten better with time.

Learning Python

In the recent years I’ve gone strictly e-book only, because I don’t have the shelf space for all the books I want or need, and e-books are also a lot cheaper. My whole programming library fits on my iPad, so it is with me wherever I go. New editions of a popular book like Learning Python typically accumulate more material over the years; the latest, 5th edition covers both Python 2.7 and 3.3, and comes up to (count ’em) 1540 pages. That might already be a little too much for a “learning” book, but there you have it.

To each their own

As a summary:

  • Absolute beginners in programming who want or need to learn Python, get Think Python by Allen Downey.
  • Those who already know a little bit about programming, and want to learn Python,
    get Learning Python by Mark Lutz.

This post contains links to the O’Reilly webstore. If you follow the links and buy a book, I will get a minuscule commission. However, I was using both of these books professionally before I became an O’Reilly affiliate, and I want people to know about them and benefit from them.


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