An annotated Lisp bibliography

Lisp is a “forever” language that’s still going reasonably strong despite also being an ancestor to much of modern programming language design. It defines both a programming style and a mode of thinking about programming, best expressed by Abelson and Sussman as “stratified” design in which all the levels are programmable — and its this focus on having a programming model for each abstraction layer that’s the key to differentiating Lisp programming. It’s an idea that’s influenced me profoundly and led me to become, and remain, a Lisp programmer — firstly to extend and adapt my Emacs environment, and increasingly as a basis for new projects (even though most of my academic work needs to stay in Python).

Such is Lisp’s longevity that it’s spawned what is perhaps the largest literature of any single programming language — too much to collect in its entirety, but for various reasons I’ve decided to bring together an annotated bibliography of the material I find most interesting. I’m doing this by curating a series of articles reviewing the key papers and books, adding some structure to hopefully make them easier to browse and reference.

A lot of the books mentioned are now out of print and unavailable in electronic form: fortunately my university has a long history of programming language research, and correspondingly good library collections. Some of the papers similarly required some tracking down, and I’ve included URLs wherever possible.

Some caveats: This is very much a work in progress, has significant gaps, and is a collection of my opinions, not a peer-reviewed survey. Having said that, I hope it’s useful.

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Introductions

There are plenty of sources for learning Lisp from scratch, and rather intriguingly they’ve continued to be written from the earliest days up to the present.

More advanced treatments

Once you’ve got the basics, a more advanced treatment is in order. Lisp has what is in many people’s opinion (including mine) the best advanced treatment of programming ever written for any language — and then also has books has push the boundaries of what’s possible within the language and (especially) its macro system. And macros are what really make Lisp code fly and give it a power that exceeds that of many more modern languages.

Applications

Contrary to popular belief, there is still new software being written in Lisp. Admittedly it’s a niche speciality and not as supported by libraries as are other languages. But Lisp’s extensibility does make it attractive for some domains (and some programmers), and there are several places in which its unique features really give an edge.

Experiences

A collection of works that speak to the “Lisp experience” in different ways.

Implementation techniques

All languages benefit from specific implementation techniques: Lisp perhaps more than others, as its programming model sits so far from that of most processors. That having been said, Lisp has served as a test-bed for a range of techniques from compilation to run-time, some of which have influenced other languages’ designs as well.

Language definitions

Lisp isn’t really just one language, or even just Common Lisp and Scheme. It’s better thought of as a style or family of languages that has grown alongside the capabilities of processors and the imaginations of its users.

Lisp machines

Throughout the 1970s there was a strand of research looking to develop processors optimised for running Lisp, since the current implementations rapidly butted-up against the hardware limitations. It was such a fertile set of ideas that MIT span-out two companies making different Lisp machines: Lisp Machines International (LMI) and Symbolics.

Where it all started

Some of the very earliest papers and books on Lisp, and the ideas that predate it.

Other resources

Only when I started pulling this series together did I really understand the extent of the Lisp literature and the wide range of historical (and other) resources that already exist. These include:

  • The amazingly complete Interlisp bibliography, unsurprisingly focused mainly on Medley Interlisp and not annotated, but including pointers to a huge range of material. (Thanks to Paolo Amoroso for pointing me at this.)

  • Nelson Beebe’s Common Lisp bibliography, again covering a wide range of Lisp and Lisp-adjacent systems. (Thanks to Mastodon user @lispm for the link.)

  • Paul McJones’ History of Lisp page, starting with the genealogy of the Lisp 1.5 system and going on to cover a huge breadth of Lisp implementations, their source code and documentation. (Thanks to Paul himself for pointing me to this.)

  • The Symbolics Lisp Machine Museum, a work-in-progress memorial for the hardware, software, and culture of Symbolics.