Reading Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

My paperback copy of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Sometime in 2002 a friend of mine asked me if I’d read a book by Neal Stephenson called Cryptonomicon. I said I hadn’t. I’d heard of other books that Stephenson had written, including Diamond Age and Snow Crash. He told me I would enjoy Cryptonomicon, which was published in 1999, because it dealt with cryptography and technology and contained lots of techie references. I picked up a paperback edition back then, and was immediately attracted to its length. I don’t know what it is about long book, but I like them. Still, I had a hard time getting through the book, and eventually, gave up.

A few years ago, I thought I’d give it another try. I was certain I’d get through it. I remembered almost nothing of my first attempt so the story would seem new to me. But I ran into the same problem as before. I had a hard time getting through the book and gave up again, in almost the same place (about two-thirds of the way through the book).

They say the third time is a charm. On Saturday, almost on a whim, I picked the book up again. This time, I was determined to finish it. I started reading, and something strange happened. I understood what I was reading. It wasn’t nearly as difficult. And I finally know why. At its core, Cryptonomicon seems to be a novel about information theory. And it just so happened that I spent much of the past spring, reading books about information theory. The focus of much of the book (so far) is on cryptography, which is a subset of information theory. But really, the novel itself is a novel about information theory.

In my previous readings, I hadn’t read about Alan Turing or Kurt Gödel. I hadn’t read about Claude Shannon and his invention of information theory. I hadn’t grasped the relationship between theories of entropy and theories of information. And of course, I hadn’t yet read Gödel, Escher, Bach and grasped the nature of the Entscheidungsproblem–whether any statement could be found true or false. Having read about all of this since the last time I attempted to read Cryptonomicon has seemed to make all the difference.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get through the book, but I am committed to getting through it this time around. I am definitely enjoying it more than on my first two attempts. And besides, I have precedence for this. I was once recommended a book and it was more than twenty years before I finally read it. Of course, when I finally finish it, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it here.

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One comment

  1. That book was slow going for me the first time or two that I attempted it. Your article has reminded me that it’s been a while (10+ years) since I read it last. Going to add it to my short list for the remainder of the summer! 🙂


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