Ready for the Fight


I've just released the print version of my book Build Your Own Lisp. In it you can learn C and build your own programming language all in under 1000 lines of code. Check it out now!

Writing a programming book is a surprisingly personal experience. You would think that the technical aspects of the book would shield you somewhat from the fear that authors face by expressing themselves. Instead it just manifests itself in different ways. For example your programming code and style are read by hundreds and scrutinized. But more importantly your philosophy is brought into view. If you've written a book you've revealed why you program, and what you value in programming. That's important.

Almost all the feedback I got about my book was intensely positive. I got personal e-mails from people thanking me for writing my book, encouraging me and telling me how much they enjoyed it. The link hit the top of the front page for both Reddit and Hacker News. Hundreds of people still read it every day. I managed to make a little bit of money, and added a great project to my CV. There was no doubt that I'd created something of value that people appreciated a lot. In short, it hadn't been a flop.

But for a long time I still didn't feel very positive about what I'd done, and I wasn't sure why.

One late night in an act of self harm I went on the wiki of the C programming IRC channel on freenode to see what they'd had to say about my book. Now I knew this was a terrible idea. This channel is hardly known for being friendly. Generally anything other than K&R is regarded as Socratic corruption. And not checking the return value of malloc is on par with adultery. Nor do they have much concern for encouraging the next generation of C programmers. I remember witnessing a new C programmer ripped for several minutes on the channel for simply mentioning the heap and stack in their explanation. Instantly he was shot down with "implementation detail and not defined in the C standard" and told to ask his question in #unix. The channel is generally a great place to go if you want to be told you're an idiot.

So I knew their philosophy would not match mine, as I opened the wiki I was fairly sure it would be negative, and probably hurt.

"Build Your Own Lisp - Bad C and terrible rationales"

Slammed in just five words. No chance to defend myself. No examination of the positives. Just a quick dismissal.

What bugged me most was that I knew I had no chance to explain myself. In general I want to be a fighter against negativity and trolls. I can be articulate and confident so I feel I have a responsibility to engaged people who make others feel stupid or bad just to re-enforce their own self image. I've done it before, and they quickly back down, or are revealed for the bigots they really are.

So when I'd been preparing to release my book I'd been preparing for a fight. I knew I'd have to defend my concept to publishers and the public. I'd have to explain why this un-tested way of learning a language can work, and what the advantages are. Now here was someone throwing a punch, a punch so blunt it had to be philosophical, personal, and all I could do was sit down and take it. I knew any protest on the channel would be futile, and most likely lead to an impossible argument against a lot of opponents. It would not help me or my cause.

But after the initial disappointment left, I actually felt better. I'd been in my fight and I'd lost it. That had freed me to start thinking about the positives. I thought about the hundreds (thousands?) of people had read my book and presumably enjoyed it, got something out of it. I'd reached out to a whole lot of people with something interesting and they'd appreciated it and thanked me. That was why I wrote it in the first place. It was me who had made it personal, by taking ownership.

Now I'm proud of my book, and after interactions with publishers I'm proud to be self publishing (although that is a different story). I certainly haven't won every battle along the way, which is something I'm didn't want to happen, but I achieved my original goal, and I am not short of allies.