The Little Schemer

Thanks to Cool Pacific

The Little Schemer spells out in its introduction that the book is about recursion. Generally in programming circles, Schemer is known as a great book for learning about Scheme/Lisp (see Paul Graham for all the praise of Lisp you’ll need) or functional programming. While true, in my recent reading of the book about 20 years after its first edition, the popularity of Schemer is more important in how it presents these ideas then their practicality in code.

Topical Focus

I’ve said before that there needs to be more topically focused short consumable books for programmers, in contrast to giant tomes. It’s rarely that developers need an immense index of a language’s every aspect or need to know every algorithm, but instead they need specific cross-language experiences - algorithmic groups, object-oriented programming, and, as with Schemer, recursion, clocking in at under 190 pages.

The early Lisp families with their annoying parentheses can quickly cause someone new to the language to either give up or invent Haskell. But as this book proves, Scheme’s syntax isn’t the point. The topic is recursion and that’s it. Use a good IDE to help with your parentheses and move on and be done quickly.


Really, Schemer is a Socratic discourse between a very sharp neophyte and his guide. A very short question and answer format is maintained throughout, except for the sprinkling of recursive commandants and a handful of asides.

The format is a breather from syntactically dense books (here’s how you make variables, here’s you make arrays, classes, functions...250 pages later: You know X new JS framework), academically dense books and the “Let’s program to the Extreme with bad jokes” books.

Using this format, Schemer is as nuanced as it comes, often annoyingly so, as the authors walk through recursive functions a logic decision at a time. However, as laborious as this may be, it’s best to listen to the author’s recommendation to not rush your reading no more than you would a good conversation to experience this unique approach to programming pedagogy.

The Why of the How

A large intent of this Socratic method is to really get down to why a person makes the choices they do, which is a lot more interesting and demonstrates expertise. Take an example of asking an interviewee programmer to write out the Shell Sort on a whiteboard versus to have that same person walk you through a short array verbally using that algorithm, meanwhile explaining why it’s more efficient than insertion sort.

In a time when a common complaint is that the rush of new frameworks and languages is overwhelming and something employers except programmers to keep up with, the main question is how do I write something rather than how did the language arise in the way it did.

For its format and focus, The Little Schemer transcends the modern sense of programming instruction. It won’t be taught in a code bootcamp, because in the Schemer’s universe, coding bootcamps don’t exist because you’re not in a hurry to get a job, because there is no job to be had. Only understanding.