thebjorn thebjorn - 4 months ago 14
Python Question

How should I read a file line-by-line in Python?

In pre-historic times (Python 1.4) we did:

fp = open('filename.txt')
while 1:
line = fp.readline()
if not line:
break
print line


after Python 2.1, we did:

for line in open('filename.txt').xreadlines():
print line


before we got the convenient iterator protocol in Python 2.3, and could do:

for line in open('filename.txt'):
print line


I've seen some examples using the more verbose:

with open('filename.txt') as fp:
for line in fp:
print line


is this the preferred method going forwards?

[edit] I get that the with statement ensures closing of the file... but why isn't that included in the iterator protocol for file objects?

Answer

There is exactly one reason why the following is prefered:

with open('filename.txt') as fp:
    for line in fp:
        print line

We are all spoiled by CPython's relatively deterministic reference-counting scheme for garbage collection. Other, hypothetical implementations of Python will not necessarily close the file "quickly enough" without the with block if they use some other scheme to reclaim memory.

In such an implementation, you might get a "too many files open" error from the OS if your code opens files faster than the garbage collector calls finalizers on orphaned file handles. The usual workaround is to trigger the GC immediately, but this is a nasty hack and it has to be done by every function that could encounter the error, including those in libraries. What a nightmare.

Or you could just use the with block.

Bonus Question

(Stop reading now if are only interested in the objective aspects of the question.)

Why isn't that included in the iterator protocol for file objects?

This is a subjective question about API design, so I have a subjective answer in two parts.

On a gut level, this feels wrong, because it makes iterator protocol do two separate things—iterate over lines and close the file handle—and it's often a bad idea to make a simple-looking function do two actions. In this case, it feels especially bad because iterators relate in a quasi-functional, value-based way to the contents of a file, but managing file handles is a completely separate task. Squashing both, invisibly, into one action, is surprising to humans who read the code and makes it more difficult to reason about program behavior.

Other languages have essentially come to the same conclusion. Haskell briefly flirted with so-called "lazy IO" which allows you to iterate over a file and have it automatically closed when you get to the end of the stream, but it's almost universally discouraged to use lazy IO in Haskell these days, and Haskell users have mostly moved to more explicit resource management like Conduit which behaves more like the with block in Python.

On a technical level, there are some things you may want to do with a file handle in Python which would not work as well if iteration closed the file handle. For example, suppose I need to iterate over the file twice:

with open('filename.txt') as fp:
    for line in fp:
        ...
    fp.seek(0)
    for line in fp:
        ...

While this is a less common use case, consider the fact that I might have just added the three lines of code at the bottom to an existing code base which originally had the top three lines. If iteration closed the file, I wouldn't be able to do that. So keeping iteration and resource management separate makes it easier to compose chunks of code into a larger, working Python program.

Composability is one of the most important usability features of a language or API.