I'd like to install a very basic version of linux on a spare laptop i have so that i can try to learn the basics of how it works.
Can you suggest a distribution for me
to use so that i can get a basic
command line running, then that i can
learn how to install packages, and
generally play around in a 'safe'
That being said, I personally think Gentoo would be a horrible choice for someone trying to learn how to use Linux, install packages, etc. Not only does it take 2+ days to compile a basic system, it would require a fair bit of familiarity with Linux in order to get everything up and running.
I agree with the previous posters, Live CD's are the way to go if you do not have a few extra computers lying around that are just begging to have Linux installed on them. Alternatively, if you have a reasonably powered desktop or laptop (dual core at least with 2+GB of ram) another possibility is to install Virtual Box (available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Solaris, etc) and install Linux into a virtual machine. As much as Live CD's are great for testing out various Linux distributions, the fact that any sort of package management or configuration is going to be gone after you reboot is a downside. Virtual Box is free, and will allow you to save your configuration, updates to packages, etc all without the fear of possibly messing your computer up.
I would recommend Ubuntu for anyone wanting to get into using Linux, only because things just seem to work without having to do too much mucking around. If you really want to get a good handle on how package management works, try as many distributions as you can.
FreeBSD (which uses
Slackware( which uses
Fedora (which uses
yum to install RPMs to fill software dependencies)
Ubuntu (which uses
dselect, and many many other tools to manage software)
Gentoo (which uses
portage, very similar to BSD)
You might just find that you like how distribution X does things different than distribution Y for some reason. I find each package management system has advantages/disadvantages depending on what the purpose of the machine is.