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The Reader Monad — Part 1 by@jonathangfischoff

The Reader Monad — Part 1

Jonathan Fischoff Hacker Noon profile picture

Jonathan Fischoff

This post will cover the foundations. It will mostly be an exercise in learning how to specialize types, simplify the substitutions and come up with the only reasonable implementation.


The Reader monad, or more generally the MonadReader interface, solves the problem of threading the same configuration to many functions.

-- Imagine this is a directory
type Config = FilePath
load :: Config -> String -> IO String
load config x = readFile (config ++ x)
loadRevision :: Config -> Int -> IO String
loadRevision config x = load config ("history" ++ show x ++ ".txt")
loadAll :: Config -> Int -> String -> IO (String, String)
loadAll config x y = do
a <- load config y
b <- loadRevision config x
return (a, b)

If you look at loadAll you’ll see config is not used, but is threaded through to the child functions. This is a common source of boilerplate and the reader monad attempts to ameliorate it.

So instead of threading the config to each function, we can rewrite this using MonadReader and the configuration will get passed implicitly. To retrieve the configuration, we call ask:

-- Imagine this is a directory
type Config = FilePath
load :: (MonadReader Config m, MonadIO m) => String -> m String
load x = do
config <- ask
liftIO $ readFile (config ++ x)
loadRevision :: (MonadReader Config m, MonadIO m) => Int -> m String
loadRevision x = load ("history" ++ show x ++ ".txt")
loadAll :: (MonadReader Config m, MonadIO m) => Int -> String -> m (String, String)
loadAll x y = do
a <- load y
b <- loadRevision x
return (a, b)

If you look at the intermediate functions loadRevision and loadAll we no longer have to take in and pass the config around. However the “leaf” function load has gotten more complicated. We will later extend this example to make it reusable across concrete configurations and compare it to alternatives; but first some basics.

( (->) e), Reader, ReaderT and MonadReader

When Haskellers mention the “reader monad” they could be referring to one of four related things:

  1. The Monad instance for functions with the same first argument, which is written somewhat inscrutably as ((->) e) (which I think of as (e ->)).
  2. type Reader = ReaderT Identity
  3. The ReaderT type
  4. Anything that implements the MonadReader type class.

It’s worth understanding all four of these concepts.

What does a Monad for functions with the same first argument do?

Remember that a Monad is also a Functor and an Applicative. To understand the monad for ((->) e) we will try to guess the implementations for the Functor, Applicative and Monad instances by looking at the types after substituting ((->) e) into the type signatures.

Functor instance

First the Functor instance. Let’s write out the type of fmap.

Class Functor f where
fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

It is not clear from looking at this type signature, what the Functor instance for ((->) e) will do.

One easy way to understand what the implementation of Functor should be is to look at the implementation in base. Another way is to infer it by writing out the specialized instance signature. This is a somewhat tedious process, but it is good practice for implementing instances and understanding how they must work.

The process starts by making a substitution for the type variable introduced in the type class, in this case f.

So we substitute f = ((->) e):

fmap :: (a -> b) -> (((->) e) a) -> (((->) e) b)

Then we simplify

fmap :: (a -> b) -> (((->) e) a) -> (((->) e) b)
fmap :: (a -> b) -> ((->) e a) -> ((->) e b)
fmap :: (a -> b) -> (e -> a) -> (e -> b)
fmap :: (a -> b) -> (e -> a) -> e -> b

I am going to relabel the variables with the following substitutions, e = a, a = b, and b = c (because I already know what to look for ;)).

fmap :: (b -> c) -> (a -> b) -> a -> c

And now we can see that fmap for ((->) e) is compose .

fmap :: (b -> c) -> (a -> b) -> a -> c
fmap f g x = f (g x)

There is no other non-evil implementation for that type signature.

This leads to the fun trick of trolling your coworker by writing fmap . fmap as fmap fmap fmap as in

> (fmap fmap fmap) (+1) [Just 1, Just 2, Nothing]
[Just 2, Just 3, Nothing]

Applicative instance

First let’s write out pure.

pure :: a -> f a

substitute f = ((->) e)

pure :: a -> (((->) e) a)


pure :: a -> e -> a

So we end up with a function that takes in an a and some random other argument e and returns an a. This must work for all es and as and there is no way to combine unknown types. Therefore, the only thing the function can do is return back the a it was given. Hence it is const:

pure :: a -> e -> a
pure x _ = x

Next we have <*> or ap.

(<*>) :: f (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

substitute f = ((->) e)

(<*>) :: (((->) e) (a -> b)) -> (((->) e) a) -> (((->) e) b)


(<*>) :: ((e -> (a -> b)) -> (e -> a) -> (e -> b)
(<*>) :: (e -> a -> b) -> (e -> a) -> (e -> b)
(<*>) :: (e -> a -> b) -> (e -> a) -> e -> b

So the <*> takes two functions that both have e as the first argument and chains them to make a new function that takes an e and gives the chained output.

(<*>) :: (e -> a -> b) -> (e -> a) -> e -> b
f <*> g = \e -> f e (g e)

Monad instance

We have already covered return: it’s just pure, which is just const.

First, the type for bind:

(>>=) :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b

Substitute m = ((->) e)

(>>=) :: (((->) e) a) -> (a -> (((->) e) b)) -> (((->) e) b)


(>>=) :: (e -> a) -> (a -> (e -> b)) -> (e -> b)
(>>=) :: (e -> a) -> (a -> e -> b) -> e -> b

Bind is basically a flipped-around <*>

(>>=) :: (e -> a) -> (a -> e -> b) -> e -> b
g >>= f = flip f <*> g

join is more interesting. join flattens a two layers of a monad to one.

join :: Monad m => m (m a) -> m a

Let’s substitute m = ((->) e)

join :: (((->) e) (((->) e) a))) -> (((->) e) a)


join :: (((->) e) ((->) e a))) -> ((->) e a)
join :: ((->) e) (e -> a)) -> (e -> a)
join :: (e -> (e -> a)) -> e -> a
join :: (e -> e -> a) -> e -> a

There is only really one non-evil implementation for this type signature, and it is equivalent to the following:

join :: (e -> e -> a) -> e -> a
join f x = f x x

join we get for free, but it is good to see how it could be implemented by hand. It’s sometimes used for creating a tuple with the same value for the first and second value.

> join (,) 1
(1, 1)

What is Reader?

You can think of Reader as being a newtype around (e -> a)

newtype Reader e a = Reader { runReader :: e -> a }

However, these days it is defined as a specialized version of ReaderT.

type Reader = ReaderT Identity

For all intents and purposes, it works just like the Functor, Applicative and Monad instances, ((->) e). There is really no reason to use it if ((->) e) will suffice.


MonadReader is the general interface for reader monads. The type class is essentially what follows:

class Monad m => MonadReader r m | m -> r where
ask :: m r
local :: (r -> r) -> m a -> m a

Let’s see what the implementation for ((->) e) must be by substituting m = ((->) e) and r = e:

instance MonadReader e ((->) e) where
ask :: e -> e
ask = ?

local :: (e -> e) -> (e -> a) -> e -> a
local = ?

ask can only really be one thing:

ask :: e -> e
ask = id

local is a little trickier. It is not completely determined by the type. The documentation says it takes in a function e -> e that modifies the environment and a e -> a that uses the modified environment.

Here we go:

local :: (e -> e) -> (e -> a) -> e -> a
local f action = action . f


ReaderT is the transformer version of Reader. It allows you to add the “first argument threading” capabilities of “Reader” with another Monad. A common choice is ReaderT e IO. Our example at the beginning of the article could be rewritten with ReaderT e IO instead of MonadReader but little is gained by specifying the transformer stack directly. It is more flexible to write the functions using the reader monad interface MonadReader.

One advantage of using ReaderT directly is that we can take advantage of a more expressive version of local, mainly withReaderT which has the following type:

withReaderT :: (r' -> r) -> ReaderT r m a -> ReaderT r' m a

Unlike local withReaderT can change the type of the environment from r to r'.

Next Up

That’s all for now. In a future post I’ll discuss some enhancements and compare the Reader Monad against some alternatives.

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