The Book That Can’t Be Read

In The New Yorker piece, “Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript,” Reed Johnson writes that stored away in the rare-book library at Yale, is a late-medieval, vellum book, written in a strange script.

It has puzzling drawings of legions of flowers, which depict no flora found on Earth. Its plants are chimerical, combining mismatched parts from different species, even different kingdoms.

Naked women with distended bellies and spindly arms and legs, appear to be frolicking in what look like amusement park water slides from the 15th century. There are zodiac charts, showing the movements of celestial bodies, such as the transit of the Moon across the Pleiades. There’s even a section on herbs and roots.

But the oddest thing about it is that no one has been able to read it because its alphabet appears nowhere other than in its pages.

Carbon-dating has determined that it was created in the 15th century. Over the ages, plenty of people, some among them, a cast of eminent code-breakers, have poured sleepless nights into it, with little to show for their labor. The text has baffled everyone who’s tried to decode it.

It’s either a scientific treatise on the natural world or a grimoire in an alien language or in cipher. Some believe it to be the work of the brilliant 13th century English friar Roger Bacon. But that, like everything else about the Voynich, is disputed.

Johnson opines that as much as people obsess over it, few “would truly like to see it solved.”

Wilfrid Voynich was wrong that deciphering the manuscript would make it more valuable: the book’s resistance to being read is what sets it apart.

[Till it’s decoded], the manuscript exists in a sort of quantum indeterminacy—one that collapses into a single meaning the moment the text … is understood. And no matter how thrilling such a text might be, it will remain a disappointment … for being, in the end, no longer a mystery.

Still, what secret is this 600-year-old codex hiding, if at all?



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