why learn elisp (Emacs Lisp)

This post is the intro module of Living with Emacs Lisp.

The goal of this post is to hopefully convince you why you should learn elisp. Readers are assumed to be beginning users of Emacs. (Of course he who does not use Emacs does not need to learn elisp)

So you are a beginning user of Emacs and let me raise a relevant question: suppose someone asked you “Why did you choose Emacs?” The longer question would be “What is the point of using Emacs in particular when there are other great text editors out there that are also cross-platform, customizable and extensible?”

You probably have your answer to the question. If you want to hear my answer, I’d say “I choose Emacs because Emacs is customizable and extensible to an extreme degree. I believe that is the defining character of Emacs. That may not mean that everybody should use Emacs but that is certainly why I will continue to use Emacs.”

I think my customization of Emacs is only to a mild degree and I may never actually customize it to an extreme degree. However, because I know that Emacs allows extreme customization, I can be sure that Emacs allows any kind of mild customization I might want later. It’s like how some columnist would feel sure that organizations like ACLU will come defend his right to say his mildly controversial speeches if needed after he has seen ACLU defend those with extreme opinions.

The extent to which Emacs can be extended to suit your needs. You can do a lot with Emacs without learning elisp: you can define keyboard macros, you can install and use Emacs packages for your needs, you can use the Customize facility to customize your Emacs and packages to some extent. That is, without learning elisp, you can already experience Emacs to be one of those editors that are cross-platform, customizable and extensible. As you learn elisp and as you start to use hooks in interesting ways, or make your own small minor modes, or even make your own Emacs package, you start to experience Emacs to be an editor that is customizable and extensible to an extreme level. Think of that as a kind of premium feature of Emacs which you unlock by paying, and you pay not with dollars, but with time: time devoted to learning elisp.

On the other hand, there is an old saying: “Time is money”. Of course we can’t and shouldn’t devote all day to learning elisp. And we wouldn’t expect that one hour of learning elisp would unlock all the power. It’s a gradual thing. A learning curve is there, but not as steep as you might expect. Do you have something in mind that you always wanted to have in your text editor? Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn enough elisp to make that something happen.

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2 Responses to why learn elisp (Emacs Lisp)

  1. umtassio says:

    Nice introduction. I look forward to your next posts! I am a beginning emacs user, and have more than one customization in mind, so challenge accepted!

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