#Review – The Art of Unix Programming

There is a vast difference between knowledge and expertise. Knowledge lets you deduce the right thing to do; expertise makes the right thing a reflex, hardly requiring conscious thought at all.

I was introduced to Unix in 1986. I was working at AT&T as a communications technician and my operations manager had just gotten hold of three 3B2 minicomputers. I was tapped to do something useful with them. So I bought a copy of Unix System V Bible, plugged a serial terminal into one of the 3B2s and started learning.

I still have that book, by the way.

This was my introduction to Unix. It was also my introduction to the Unix culture, and the wider world of the Open Source software movement.

Eric S. Raymond is one of the most eloquent supporters of Open Source. His book The Cathedral and the Bazaar was a seminal work on the emerging information economy and the changing model of software development. As Cathedral was a work of philosophy, Raymond’s The Art of Unix Programming was about practice.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional programmer. I write code for fun and to build tools for other work. I teach programming. I blog about programming. I read about programming. These are just some of the reasons that Eric Raymond’s book has a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Another reason is that Raymond is a damn good writer. He’s engaging, passionate and smart without being condescending. This book is nominally about writing Unix programs but on a higher level it’s a treatise on software design. Raymond uses Unix as a jumping-off point to discuss the larger topic of writing good software.

It’s not about a particular programming language. You can write Unix programs in any language you like.

One of my favorite sections is “Basics of the Unix Philosophy” where he lays out the rules of design for good code. From the Rule of Modularity (“Write simple parts connected by clean interfaces”) to the Rule of Extensibility (“Design for the future, because it will be here sooner than you think.”), they all represent solid advice for designing code with any language on any platform. I’ve tried to incorporate these rules in my own code.

In addition to offering guidance for current and would-be programmers, there is a section on design principles, including Modularity, Textuality and Interfaces. Naturally, there are copious references to Open Source, including a discussion of software licensing and best practices.

But it’s not all sunshine and relentless boosterism. Raymond takes a clear-eyed look at the problems with Unix culture and problems in Unix design. Bonus features include a section called ‘Rootless Root’, a parody of Zen philosophy complete with Unix koans and copious examples of code demonstrating the principles that Raymond outlines the book.

The Art of Unix Programming is not just a good book for coders but for anyone who enjoys reading about the philosophy of design.



Raymond, Eric S. The Art of Unix programming. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2003.


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