Book Review: The Code Book by Simon Singh

In his first book since the bestselling Fermat’s Enigma, Simon Singh offers the first sweeping history of encryption, tracing its evolution and revealing the dramatic effects codes have had on wars, nations, and individual lives. From Mary, Queen of Scots, trapped by her own code, to the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the Allies win World War II, to the incredible (and incredibly simple) logisitical breakthrough that made Internet commerce secure, The Code Book tells the story of the most powerful intellectual weapon ever known: secrecy.

Throughout the text are clear technical and mathematical explanations, and portraits of the remarkable personalities who wrote and broke the world’s most difficult codes. Accessible, compelling, and remarkably far-reaching, this book will forever alter your view of history and what drives it.  It will also make you wonder how private that e-mail you just sent really is. 

I may have been a software engineer until a few years and a graduate in it, but I’ve never actually been much of a tech nerd. So, the subject matter of this book is not particularly something I would gravitate towards. But the author of The Ivory Key, Akshaya Raman mentioned that this was one of the books that she used for research for her debut and I was immediately interested because TIK was a fun YA fantasy with lots of puzzle solving. I knew I had to read this one.

This one took a while to finish because while it’s very fascinating, it’s also not the binge reading kind. One chapter a day to read and process all the information was the perfect way to get through this one. And I was amazed at how the author framed the whole narrative. This is not a technical book about cryptography but there are good enough explanations to understand the various ciphers he talks about. But I loved the history part of this book, from the earliest substitution ciphers that were developed to the recent RSA /PGP encryption that revolutionized the discussion about the importance of digital privacy. The chapters on the trail of Mary Queen of Scots, Vigenère Cipher, the creation and breaking of Enigma during WWII, the many people who especially worked under the guise of secrecy and never received credit for their many contributions to their countries, and the still unbroken Beale ciphers (and it’s corresponding unfound treasure), were all super fun to read about and I thought the author explained them in a very engaging manner.

However, the little diversion the author took from cryptography and talked about the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as the Pre-Hellenic language Linear B were my favorites. I’ve always been very interested in reading about archeology and the art of finding clues about history through the artifacts found on digs. So the complete process of how the Egyptian language was first thought about and how long it took to be deciphered was very cool. But the story of Linear B and how many decades and people from different backgrounds it took for it be deciphered was engrossing and I loved it. Even though this part of the book wasn’t related to codemaking or codebreaking, it was enthralling to see how ideas of cryptography were used to finally crack the mysteries of these ancient kingdoms.

To conclude, this was a very engrossing read. I think anyone interested in the topic of codes and ciphers would enjoy this book, especially the readers like me who are more fascinated by the history of this technology as well as the people who are responsible for the advances we have made in cryptography, rather than the highly technical aspects of it. The author does include a huge reading list and bibliography at the end, so I’m sure every kind of reader will find something they like in this well researched and excellently narrated book.

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