Emacs Idolization: Have You Read the Emacs Manual From Cover to Cover?

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Emacs Idolization: Have You Read the Emacs Manual From Cover to Cover?

Xah Lee, 2010-07-29

Thien-Thi Nguyen wrote:

Why does the search start with Google (and continue with other downstream, non-terminating, whirlpool-shaped, out of date, referenda)? Why not go to the source?  The Emacs Lisp manual, the Emacs Lisp code, the Emacs customization facility, the Emacs *scratch* buffer, the Emacs!

Elena wrote:

Surprisingly enough - or not? - it seems few users do read the manuals... I'm guilty of this too (and Emacs' manuals will be my reading on my next vacations).

I always thought of doing this, but it never happened. Not the emacs manual, nor the elisp manual. Over the past 12 years of using emacs daily, i have read perhaps 1/3 of the emacs manual and 1/2 elisp manual, counted in a accumulative way. The few times i tried to read emacs manual systematically in the past years, usually didn't last for more than 2 hours.

However, i have read cover to cover, word for word, systematically in a continued setting, several programing lang or software manuals. Some of these software are quite more deeper than emacs. Here they are from my recollection.

(Note: emacs manual for emacs 22 is 589 pages in printed form, and elisp manual for emacs 21 is 900 pages.)

Microsoft Word Manual

Microsoft Word manual i think i've read most of it in about 1992. Though, i can't remember i actually read the manual or just become expert by using and scanning the doc when needed. (i stopped using Microsoft Word about 1998.)

HP-28S Advanced Scientific Calculator

HP-28S Advanced Scientific Calculator manual. (2 books) I read cover to cover, twice, in about 1991. In fact this is how i learned programing, my first computer language, and the first i mastered.

(See: HP-28S Advanced Scientific Calculator and Xah Lee's Computing Experience Bio. )

The Mathematica Book

Mathematica manual (aka the Mathematica Book amazon ). I've read it 3 times in separate years, systematically, from cover to cover. This all happened in 1990s. Note that Mathematica the language, the subject it deals with, is inherently a order of magnitude more complex than emacs. The Mathematica book is 1381 pages, 3 kilograms. Heavy enough to hit someone to cause concussion.

This 4th edition published in 1999, is the last printed edition. They no longer print it nor come with the software. Note how commercial orgs have adopted changes with the changing industry.

The Perl Book

The Perl Book. I've read basically cover to cover in about 1998, 1999. (yes, i own the printed book. The printed book aka The Camel Book is edited version of Perl's man pages. Actually i've read all major perl books from 1997 to ~2000. (See: Pathetically Elational Regex Language (PERL))

The Unicode Standard, Version 3.0

Read the whole printed version of the “The Unicode Standard, Version 3.0” amazon , in ~2000, word for word. (1072 pages; though half of it is character table.) (See also: Unicode Related Tutorials and Essays.)

PHP manual

The PHP manual (online). Roughly read reasonably all of it in about a week, in 2005. (scanned in detail on parts that do not require detailed understanding at first.)

MySQL manual

MySQL manual, online. Read it at the same time i read PHP manual from cover to cover, in 2005. Took me about week or two. I've been working with SQL or variants daily in a day job during 1998 to 2002, but haven't touched it for 2 years. So this reading is to brush up my SQL, as well as first time comprehensive reading of MySQL documentation in particular.

Habit of Reading Manuals

Reading manuals systematically is kinda a habit, developed from early 1990s as part of a method to study English, and also somewhat a old-fashioned and stubburn mindset of wanting to learn everything from ground up, thoroughly, and from the original source. Reading manuals, is also how i learned most of my proprograming. Just about any software, language, OS, i used from about 1991 to about early 2000s, i tried to read their manuals systematically from cover to cover, not missing a word. This mentality and its severity, waned gradually over the past 20 years. Today, i do not take the pain to systematically read manuals of any new software i have to learn. (if it exists at all; or isn't some haphazard wiki, or random notes by coder joe (such as Python's docs. See: Python Documentation Problems).)

(other manuals i've read quite a lot for example: vast unix man pages, Apache 1.x, Sun Microsystem's Solaris 8 (3 volumes) (~1999), Scheme R4RS (~1998), Java (~1999 to ~2006), Microsoft's JScript (~2005), Python (~2005), Mac OS X Server official doc from Apple, ... (See: Examples Of Quality Documentation In The Computing Industry) )

Is Emacs Godsend?

Elena wrote:

Emacs is too much a complex (not difficult) and powerful software to be used by intuition alone, unlike many softwares we are used to.

This is simply not true.

For example, from personal experience, Blender, Second Life both are more complex than emacs, both for learning it, as well in terms of effort or complexity of their implementation, as well as inherent complexity by the nature of these software's purpose.

Second Life i've been using for about 3 years now. (See: A Photographic Tour of Life in Second Life.)

Blender i started to learn this year... but quite too complex and difficult to get started.

I'd say, Blender or Second Life, each, are a order magnitude more complex and rich than emacs. Either considered from simple use aspect, or in-depth use aspect such as coding in their scripting languages to use them fully. (akin to coding emacs lisp. See: Second Life 3D Build Tutorial, LSL Scripting Tutorial.)

Also, depending on what you mean by use... for example, if you take the perspective of emacs lisp as a language, then, compared to programing Java, C, C++, all are quite richer than elisp and takes longer to explore before reaching diminishing returns. If you take the perspective of emacs as programing framework for creating applications such as file manager, ftp client, irc client, mp3 manager, etc, then, compared to proper software frameworks such as Mac OS and Windows, both are a order far more complex, of bottomless learning depth, as well far more powerful.

Emacs Cult and Idolization

Am writing this because i want to dispel the cult phenomenon surrounding emacs. On the net we often hear some magical qualities about emacs, but i think if you look at it seriously, usually much of it are not meaningful.

Since this issue kept cropping up in my mind over the past ~5 years, in argument with many old-time emacs users, i thought about the question: whether there is claim we can make that gives the air of superiority or god-like quality of emacs, yet is meaningful by verification and can be justified.

I think to that question we need to be concrete and specific. If a claim is made concrete, then its veracity can be more easily judged. For examples, the following i think can be claimed:

  • Emacs is the most suitable tool for text manipulation tasks that are complex and not-well-defined and requires interactive human watch. (See: Why Emacs is Still so Useful Today.)
  • Emacs is most flexible, customizable, user extensible text editor.
  • Emacs is the most well known and widely used editor that has a embedded programing language for text editing.
  • The Emacs system with Emacs Lisp is probably the most versatile computer language for text processing. (See: Text Processing: Elisp vs Perl.)

The above claims are still not so precise, but are items i think can be reasonably justified. Or can be made more precise, so that the sum of them can make sense, and conclude that emacs is quite powerful and versatile.

On the other hand, the following i think are in the category of myths:

  • ? Emacs manual would rank among the top 100 best in today's software.
  • ? Emacs's keyboard system is among the better designed, in its efficiency, or extensibility, or consistency, or ergonomics.
  • ? Emacs keyboard shortcuts and the way they are mapped to emacs's text manipulation commands, is a very efficient system. (e.g. ratio of number of commands to call over arbitrary text manipulation tasks)
  • ? Emacs is among the top one thousand major software today, with respect to of importance to society, or number of users, or software quality.
  • ? Emacs and system is among the top one thousand software with respect to the software's power, or versatility, or usefulness.
  • ? Emacs's implementation considered as a software project today is among the top one thousand software in terms of complexity, size, or achievement.


There are a lot such myths going around different communities. In perl community, it's filled to the brim about how perl is everything and great. In the Common Lisp community, you hear fantastic things about lisp being the god of all programing languages, while they almost never mention emacs lisp as a language, and if they do, it's all sneer and spits and attacks to no ends. In the Scheme community, likewise you hear how it is the most beautiful, the most elegant, and the most powerful, of all, with its call-cc and tail recursion and whatnot. ( See: Scheme & Failure and Language, Purity, Cult, and Deception ) In unix community, which is usually hated by lispers of any faction, you hear how unix is the most versatile, the greatness of its “Unix philosophy” and “KISS” principles. (See: The Nature of the Unix Philosophy.) Likewise, there's also commercially generated myths, e.g. Java, about how it solves all cross-platform problems, and how OOP solves the world's programing problems, etc. (See: What are OOP's Jargons and Complexities)

All these spur from communities that developed certain cult following. Ultimately, it's more harmful than good. Damaging to the general public, as well as damaging to the community itself, long term.

What i'd like to say, is that, yes i love emacs and you love emacs. However, when praising, be concrete and specific on what you like about it, and avoid idolization. Because, idolization cultivates cult-like mindset, and when the community is cult-like, it becomes a closed community, and impedes evolution and progress.

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