|Mastering Regular Expressions|
|author||Jeffrey E.F. Friedl|
|pages||515 (31 page index)|
|rating||11 out of 10|
|reviewer||Simon P. Chappell|
|summary||A classic of modern computer literature.|
This is a book for programmers; managers, project managers and architects need not apply. If you talk about code instead of writing it and have teams of programmers report to you, then consider buying this book and giving it to them. If you're a technical lead or lead programmer, then shame on you if an earlier edition of this book isn't already on your shelves! The majority of examples are written using Perl, but if you can read basic Perl (Pidgin Perl, perhaps?) then you'll be fine with the examples. Programmers in PHP, Java, .NET and Ruby also have dedicated sections of the book, so it's very inclusive and almost platform agnostic.
The book has ten chapters divided into two parts. Chapters one through six are what Mr. Friedl calls the "story" of regular expressions. Chapters seven through ten are an examination of the specific regular expression capabilities of Perl, Java, .NET and PHP.
Chapter one is an introduction to regular expressions. At only 33 pages, you might think that it would be shallow, but rather, it is knowledge dense. The examples in the first chapter use egrep extensively. This makes a lot of sense as it's an advanced tool, easy to use and freely available for most modern operating systems.
Chapter two builds on this introduction with extended introductory examples. These are written in Perl (again, simple and easy to follow), but there is no doubt that the regular expressions are the stars of the show around here. The examples are small Perl programs, but their benefit is that Mr. Friedl talks the reader through the process of creating each of them. This is more useful than just presenting example programs, because with just pure examples, you are out of luck if your specific problem is not covered. With this approach, you're coached towards thinking in regular expressions and are more equipped to address your personal regular expression needs.
Chapter three provides an overview of regular expression features and flavors. It starts with a historical view of the development of regular expressions, including a few asides about the influence that the earlier versions of the book have had on that development. After that, the chapter uses a search and replace example to demonstrate some of the differences between flavors of regular expression capabilities provided by different programming languages. Strings, Unicode and metacharacters round out this overview.
Strap yourself in for chapter four; it's time to talk about the computer science that makes all of that matching work. If you didn't know the difference between an NFA and a DFA regular expression engine before you start this chapter, you most certainly will by the end of it. At first sight, it might seem that this is chapter for the pure propeller heads amongst us. While there is much theory here, it's all presented in the light of how your regular expression engine is trying to do what you asked. By understanding the approaches to regular expression processing, we can learn to help ourselves. We help ourselves when we write regular expressions that run faster and use less memory. We write better regular expressions when we understand the consequences of what we write. For example, the oft written ".*" (dot star) seems like a great way to ignore a bunch of stuff in the middle of an expression, but such simplistic use is just waiting to bite you. This chapter explains why and how to deal with the situations where you'd be tempted to use simplistic expressions and how just a little extra thought can bring you the behavior you want.
Chapter five is a practical counterpoint to the previous theory chapter. Here, Mr. Friedl discusses practical regular expression techniques. There are a number of short examples, before he works through medium sized HTML processing examples and finished up with a look at processing Comma Separated Value (CSV) data.
Chapter six is efficiency. Your regular expression can be as correct as you like, but if it takes what seems like eternity to run, then it's of little use. This chapter mostly addresses NFA based engines, because they have the greatest variability based on how the regular expression is written.
Chapters seven through ten cover the specifics of using regular expressions in Perl, Java, .NET and PHP. They're well written and cover everything you need to apply the content of the first six chapters to your programming language of choice.
Everything about this book is great. This is the kind of book that O'Reilly built its reputation with. A master of the subject matter, writing in a clear, easily understood manner, leaving the reader educated and able to operate comfortably with the subject matter. I may not be a regular expression guru, but I feel that I have a much better grasp of the fundamentals that I would need if I did want to be such a guru.
Mr. Friedl is to be commended for his clear explanations of what is, in all reality, much more complex computer science than many of us are used to dealing with. The fact that his explanations are highly readable and enjoyable is a significant bonus.
There is a website for the book, regex.info and a blog at regex.info/blog, where Mr. Friedl has some wonderful photographs of Japanese gardens with their autumn colors. (Nothing to do with regular expressions, but they appealed to my inner photographer.)
Lastly, while the book is not intended to be an encyclopedia of regular expressions, all of the examples are very relevant to programmers needs and this book can easily serve that reference role.
At the risk of sounding like some kind of O'Reilly shill or a relative of Mr. Friedl, I must report that I don't think that I found a single thing I didn't like about this book.
This is a classic of the first order. Nail it to your desk unless you want to be constantly retrieving it from your co-workers. If I might be permitted a Spinal Tap reference, this one goes to eleven. If you ever use regular expressions, are thinking of using regular expressions or are in the same room as a regular expression, then you need this book.
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