Anatomy of Lisp

John Allen. Anatomy of Lisp. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-001115-X. 1978.

This is a hard book to characterise. It’s simultaneously an introduction, a collection of advanced (for the time) programming techniques, and a guide to some very low-level implementation details. It contains a lot of the usual introductory material, but then delves into different representational choices for the basic data structures – lists, but also arrays and hash tables as well as Lisp code itself – and for the frames needed to represent function calls. It the tackles interpretation versus compilation, and even topics such as cross-compilation and just-in-time or memoised compilation.

It’s impossible to read this book without thinking of SICP, and indeed I think in many ways it’s a direct precursor. (It’s referenced a couple of times in SICP.) It has that same combination of high-level, semantics-driven programming combined with descriptions of underlying mechanisms. Where I think it mainly differs is that it mixes representations, using a more semantics-driven notation and explicit assembler instructions rather than sticking with Lisp variants for everything. It’s only when you see the two approaches side by side that you realise how clear Lisp can be in radically different contexts..

Another important book was published in 1978: Kernighan and Ritchie’s The C programming language. The two books share a certain low-level focus, but come to very different conclusions about the correct approach to dynamic storage, as the following footnote by Allen (slightly edited for clarity) illustrates:

Experiments have been performed in which Lisp programmers were allowed to return “garbage” to the free-space list themselves. The results were disastrous: list structure thought to be garbage was returned to the free-space list even though the structure was still being used by other computations.

C, of course, accepts this “disaster” as a natural consequence of manual allocation management. It encapsulates the different attitudes of the two contemporary language communities, though: one wanting a machine in which to think (and willing to use computing power to simplify tasks), and those wanting raw performance from limited hardware (and willing to complicate the programming task to get it).

Overall, Allen’s book is a great attempt at an end-to-end discussion of Lisp all the way down to the metal. Many of the techniques are still relevant, at least as exemplars against later, more efficient, techniques should be judged.

(Thanks to Paul McJones for pointing me to the free PDF of the book, which he was responsible for developing. See this post for a history of how this came about.)

(Part of the series An annotated Lisp bibliography.)