The Code Book

By Deane Barker on August 22, 2004

Here’s something embarrassing to admit: I picked up this book from the “New Nonfiction” shelf of my public library.

I read it cover-to-cover in two days, just enthralled with both the subject matter and Simon Singh’s incredible ability to explain it.

Then, finished and satisfied, I leaned back and read the book jacket cover, not ready to let go of such a great work just yet. To my horror, I find out that I had read the young adult version of the book.

Yep, I apparently read the watered-down version for teenagers (“12- to 16-year-olds,” actually). And I loved it. How humilitating. They should mention that little fact in bigger type.

(The book cover above, incidentally, is the adult version. The young adult version has a mostly black cover. According to Singh’s Web site, the young adult version:

…has been re-written slightly, with the more complicated concepts removed, including the section on quantum cryptography. Other sections, more pivotal to the history and development of code making and breaking can still be found in this book.

[sigh] I suck.)

Regardless, this is a great, great book. If you’re interesting in cryptography, but have never really moved past the “wow, that’s cool” stage, this is a great place to start. Singh does a masterful job of explaining how it all works, from simple substitution ciphers to public key cryptography to how the Navajo code talkers helped with the war in the Pacific.

In an extended section in the middle of the book, Singh covers the Enigma encryption machine of World War II, and actually manages to explain clearly and easily what it did, how it worked, and how the Polish and the British broke the code. I was glued to the pages and I’m looking now for another book just about Enigma — that’s how much he whet my appetite.

Singh explains concepts then builds on them to explain more complicated ciphers and codes. Each time he explained a method of encoding something, I was thinking, “Well, there’s no way anyone can break that…” Then, to my amazement, he explains that it was broken, and how it was broken. (I would make a crappy cryptographer, because their minds just work differently that everyone else’s…)

When I say “great book,” I guess I have to qualify it by saying that the young adult version was great. I can only assume that the adult version is just as good because Singh has a fantastic way of explaining enourmously abstract concepts. It’s a rare gift, and he’s nailed it.

At the end of this book, Singh presented ten ciphers of increasing complexity. He does not provide the answers anywhere in the book, and instead leaves them as a challenge to his readers. Apparently, four guys cracked them all and published the results. Singh also details the solutions here.

If you read this book (or read it based on this review) and liked it, try “Crypto” from Stephen Levy. It’s very much of the same caliber, and deal specifically with the RSA algorithm and the fight to allow it to be used by the common man.

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  1. New non-fiction? What bookstore do you patronize? This book came out in 1999, for pete’s sake. Seriously, though, Singh is a great science writer, especially for English majors like myself. Try Fermat’s Enigma, too.

    Steer clear of Stephenson’s Cryptinomicon, though. It’s a snoozer, for sure.

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