Learning Perl

by Joe Gillespie — Apr 1, 2004

With its roots in UNIX, Perl is a bit more difficult than JavaScript or PHP but it is the standard for CGI scripting on the Web. There are loads of free Perls scripts available to download and they are relatively easy to install and get running. With a little more effort, you can learn to 'hack' them to modify their operation for your own needs.

Learning Perl is a bestseller, and rightly so. It takes a fairly difficult subject and makes it approachable with a light-handed style of writing but it needs to be taken one step at a time. Try to jump ahead by a couple of pages and you will probably get lost. Where JavaScript and PHP use mostly plain English, a Perl script can look much more like a page from a sorcerer's book of spells peppered with magic symbols and hieroglyphs. What makes Perl so potent and compact also makes it very difficult to read yet the authors start off in a low gear and give a good grounding of the basics, covering the broad capabilities and advantages with easily digestible code snippets. At the end of each chapter, there are exercises that test the reader's understanding before moving on to the next topic.

Like the other Web scripting languages, Perl can be used for manipulating data submitted from forms and the book gives good examples with things like a guestbook, password validation and database connectivity.

One aspect of Perl that makes it very powerful (although it is also present to some degree in JavaScript and PHP) is the 'regular expression'. Regular expressions are a mechanism for searching (and replacing) simple and complex patterns in text. The book has a chapter on regular expressions with a few simple examples to give you a feel for the concept but avoids getting into the heavier stuff that's inclined to make your brain itch.

Unlike the JavaScript book, which is primarily a language reference, learning Perl is a tutorial that takes you by the hand and guides you through the early stages of Perl scripting. Oddly, of the three books reviewed here, it is the thinnest, being only half as thick as the other two. This says something about the 'high density' and potency of the language, but also helps illustrate the point about good things coming in small packages.

Learning Perl
Author Randal L Schwartz & Tom Phoenix
Publisher O'Reilly & Associates
ISBN 0596001320
Price $29.95 (Amazon $24.47)
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