"There Is No List"

"There Is No List"

Spoon Boy: Do not try and bend the list. That's impossible. Instead . . . only try to realize the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Spoon Boy: There is no list.

Neo: There is no list?

Spoon Boy: Then you'll see that it is not the list that bends; it is only yourself.[131]

The key to understanding lists is to understand that they're largely an illusion built on top of objects that are instances of a more primitive data type. Those simpler objects are pairs of values called cons cells, after the function `CONS` used to create them.

`CONS` takes two arguments and returns a new cons cell containing the two values.[132] These values can be references to any kind of object. Unless the second value is `NIL` or another cons cell, a cons is printed as the two values in parentheses separated by a dot, a so-called dotted pair.

`(cons 1 2) ==> (1 . 2)`

The two values in a cons cell are called the `CAR` and the `CDR` after the names of the functions used to access them. At the dawn of time, these names were mnemonic, at least to the folks implementing the first Lisp on an IBM 704. But even then they were just lifted from the assembly mnemonics used to implement the operations. However, it's not all bad that these names are somewhat meaningless—when considering individual cons cells, it's best to think of them simply as an arbitrary pair of values without any particular semantics. Thus:

```(car (cons 1 2)) ==> 1 (cdr (cons 1 2)) ==> 2```

Both `CAR` and `CDR` are also `SETF`able places—given an existing cons cell, it's possible to assign a new value to either of its values.[133]

```(defparameter *cons* (cons 1 2)) *cons* ==> (1 . 2) (setf (car *cons*) 10) ==> 10 *cons* ==> (10 . 2) (setf (cdr *cons*) 20) ==> 20 *cons* ==> (10 . 20)```

Because the values in a cons cell can be references to any kind of object, you can build larger structures out of cons cells by linking them together. Lists are built by linking together cons cells in a chain. The elements of the list are held in the `CAR`s of the cons cells while the links to subsequent cons cells are held in the `CDR`s. The last cell in the chain has a `CDR` of `NIL`, which—as I mentioned in Chapter 4—represents the empty list as well as the boolean value false.

This arrangement is by no means unique to Lisp; it's called a singly linked list. However, few languages outside the Lisp family provide such extensive support for this humble data type.

So when I say a particular value is a list, what I really mean is it's either `NIL` or a reference to a cons cell. The `CAR` of the cons cell is the first item of the list, and the `CDR` is a reference to another list, that is, another cons cell or `NIL`, containing the remaining elements. The Lisp printer understands this convention and prints such chains of cons cells as parenthesized lists rather than as dotted pairs.

```(cons 1 nil) ==> (1) (cons 1 (cons 2 nil)) ==> (1 2) (cons 1 (cons 2 (cons 3 nil))) ==> (1 2 3)```

When talking about structures built out of cons cells, a few diagrams can be a big help. Box-and-arrow diagrams represent cons cells as a pair of boxes like this:

The box on the left represents the `CAR`, and the box on the right is the `CDR`. The values stored in a particular cons cell are either drawn in the appropriate box or represented by an arrow from the box to a representation of the referenced value.[134] For instance, the list `(1 2 3)`, which consists of three cons cells linked together by their `CDR`s, would be diagrammed like this:

However, most of the time you work with lists you won't have to deal with individual cons cells—the functions that create and manipulate lists take care of that for you. For example, the `LIST` function builds a cons cells under the covers for you and links them together; the following `LIST` expressions are equivalent to the previous `CONS` expressions:

```(list 1) ==> (1) (list 1 2) ==> (1 2) (list 1 2 3) ==> (1 2 3)```

Similarly, when you're thinking in terms of lists, you don't have to use the meaningless names `CAR` and `CDR;FIRST` and `REST` are synonyms for `CAR` and `CDR` that you should use when you're dealing with cons cells as lists.

```(defparameter *list* (list 1 2 3 4)) (first *list*) ==> 1 (rest *list*) ==> (2 3 4) (first (rest *list*)) ==> 2```

Because cons cells can hold any kind of values, so can lists. And a single list can hold objects of different types.

`(list "foo" (list 1 2) 10) ==> ("foo" (1 2) 10)`

The structure of that list would look like this:

Because lists can have other lists as elements, you can also use them to represent trees of arbitrary depth and complexity. As such, they make excellent representations for any heterogeneous, hierarchical data. Lisp-based XML processors, for instance, usually represent XML documents internally as lists. Another obvious example of tree-structured data is Lisp code itself. In Chapters 30 and 31 you'll write an HTML generation library that uses lists of lists to represent the HTML to be generated. I'll talk more next chapter about using cons cells to represent other data structures.

Common Lisp provides quite a large library of functions for manipulating lists. In the sections "List-Manipulation Functions" and "Mapping," you'll look at some of the more important of these functions. However, they will be easier to understand in the context of a few ideas borrowed from functional programming.

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