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Python File Handling: Open, Read and Pickle

This Python tutorial handles text files and uses pickle. It provides complete example programs.

File handling. Data in memory is often erased.

This happens as program exits. But if the program writes data to a file, it can read in that data another time.

Data persistence. Files, a form of long-term storage, are used to persist data. We use the open() method to access files. Methods like readlines() handle their data.

A program. There are some tricks to handling text files. Even if we just want to display all the lines from a file, newlines must be handled. We read all lines from a file with readlines().

Tip: We first must create a new file object. And then we loop over the list returned by readlines().

Raw string: This program uses the path syntax a Windows system. We start the string with "r" to avoid errors with backslashes.

Based on:

Python 3

Python program that reads all lines

# Open a file on the disk.
f = open(r"C:\perls.txt", "r")

# Print all its lines.
for line in f.readlines():
    # Modify the end argument.
    print(line, end="")


Line 1
Line 2

Paths. Please change the path to an existing text file (or create a "perls.txt" file at the required location). The end="" parameter to print() modifies the behavior of print.


End: When end is assigned an empty string, the trailing newline is not printed to the console. This results in only one newline.

StringsConsole, Print

Note: The problem occurs because the line itself has a newline, and print also adds a newline of its own.

With. This statement cleans up resources. It makes simpler the task of freeing system resources. It is used with file handling: open() is a common call. It improves readability.

First: We use "with" in this simple program. The program opens and reads from a file.

Tip: This statement makes sure the system resources are cleaned up properly. The with statement is similar to a try-finally statement.

Python program that uses with statement

name = r"C:\perls.txt"

# Open the file in a with statement.
with open(name) as f:
    print(f.readline(), end="")

# Repeat.
with open(name) as f:
    print(f.readline(), end="")


First line
First line

Pickle, list. Often we need to store objects. With pickle, we write collections such as lists to a data file. It supports many objects. The with statement improves resource cleanup.


However: In this example, we create a list. We pass this list to pickle.dump().

Dump: This writes the list contents in binary form to the file f.pickle. The extension (pickle) has no importance.

Then: After we call pickle.dump(), we ignore the original list in memory. We load that same data back from the disk with pickle.load().

Python program that uses pickle, list

import pickle

# Input list data.
list = ["one", "two", "three"]
print("before:", list)

# Open the file and call pickle.dump.
with open("f.pickle", "wb") as f:
    pickle.dump(list, f)

# Open the file and call pickle.load.
with open("f.pickle", "rb") as f:
    data = pickle.load(f)
    print("after:", data)


before: ['one', 'two', 'three']
after: ['one', 'two', 'three']

New, empty file. The second argument to open() is a string containing "mode" flag characters. The "w" specifies write-only mode—no appending or reading is done.

Erased: If the file happens to exist, it is erased. So be careful when developing programs with this call.

Python program that creates new, empty file

# Create new empty file.
# ... If the file exists, it will be cleared of content.
f = open("C:\\programs\\test.file", "w")

Count character frequencies. This program opens a file and counts each character using a frequency dictionary. It combines open(), readlines, and dictionary's get().

Strip: The program strips each line because we do not want to bother with newline characters.


Get: The code uses the two-argument form of get. If a value exists, it is returned—otherwise, 0 is returned.

Dictionary: get

Example text, file.txt: Python

aaaa bbbbb
y y y y y

Python program that counts characters in file

# Open a file.
f = open(r"C:\programs\file.txt", "r")

# Stores character counts.
chars = {}

# Loop over file and increment a key for each char.
for line in f.readlines():
    for c in line.strip():
	# Get existing value for this char or a default of zero.
	# ... Add one and store that.
	chars[c] = chars.get(c, 0) + 1

# Print character counts.
for item in chars.items():


('a', 12)
(' ', 5)
('C', 2)
('b', 15)
('c', 2)
('y', 5)
('x', 2)
('Z', 1)

Benchmarking readlines, read. There is significant overhead in accessing a file for a read. I tested readlines against read() on a file with about 1000 lines.

And: It was far faster to read the entire file in a single call with the read() method. Using readlines was slower.

Analysis: Readlines likely causes a disk access, or more disk accesses than read. For some files, using read() is a better choice.

File, line repeated 1000 times: test.file

This is an interesting file.
This is an interesting file.

Python program that times readlines, read

import time


# Version 1: use readlines.
i = 0
while i < 10000:
    with open("C:\\programs\\test.file", "r") as f:
	count = 0
	for line in f.readlines():
	    count += len(line)
    i += 1


# Version 2: use read.
i = 0
while i < 10000:
    with open("C:\\programs\\test.file", "r") as f:
	count = 0
	data =
	count = len(data)
    i += 1



1406148423.383404   readlines = 7.38 s
1406148425.989555   read      = 2.61 s

IOError. File handling is an error-prone task. Sometimes a file is moved without our knowledge. Sometimes even a hardware error can occur. We cannot prevent this.

So: We must handle IOError in important programs. We can use exception handling, like try and except.


Formats. Markup files are often used in computer programs. We handle HTML and XML files. There are many ways to parse or scan these formats. I show HTMLParser and Expat.

HTML: HTMLParserXML: Expat

CSV files: Parsing CSV files is important. It is tedious. We introduce the csv module to help make it easier.


Textwrap: The textwrap module can be to rewrap text files. This can improve the formatting of files.


Modes. The default mode for the file open method in Python is "r." This means "read." The Python documentation has more details on possible modes.

The mode argument is optional; 'r' will be assumed if it's omitted.

Input and Output:

Complexity. Files are a source of complexity in programs. We must process known file formats. And sometimes we also must handle invalid or corrupted files.

A review. File handling is an important yet error-prone aspect of program development. It is essential. It gives us data persistence.