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A Manuscript That Refuses To Give Up Its Secrets

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 14, 2013

It reads like a Dan Brown novel: An indecipherable, cryptic medieval text, shrouded in mystery, filled with entrancing images, disappears for hundreds of years and then suddenly resurfaces at an Italian castle.

It certainly sounded like thriller material to Reed Johnson. He started a novel about the real-life “Voynitch Manuscript,” as it’s known, but soon found its actual story more compelling.

So compelling that Johnson has devoted a large part of the last three years to trying to crack the code and decipher the cryptic script. He joined an international listserv of experts who study the manuscript and exchange theories. He gets about a dozen Voynitch emails a day, he says.

“The history of this manuscript is littered with … all these people who have spent years and years trying to decipher this manuscript,” Johnson says. “My own experience with this manuscript has only been three years, so I’m a rank amateur.”

Johnson wrote about the history of the manuscript — and its strange allure — for the New Yorker.

“I have to go cold turkey because it’s taken up so much of my time, weekends,” he says. “Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night because I have this idea that it might be some particular kind of cypher that’s been overlooked.”

The Voynich Manuscript, now part of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, was written in Central Europe some time in the 15th or 16th centuries. It was named for Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-American rare book dealer who bought it in 1912.

Its 240 parchment pages are filled with botanical and astronomical illustrations, accompanied by the strange text.

“It doesn’t match any other language that’s been seen in any other book,” Johnson says. The drawings often have labels, which would seem to offer a route to deciphering the code. But that hope has proved to be an illusion, he says.

“Imagine a climbing wall: It looks like there are all these easy hand-holds, and you get up close to it and turns out they’re all just painted on, and it’s an extremely smooth surface and you can’t get purchase on it.”

But the puzzle has become too addictive, Johnson tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. He says he’s quitting the listserv and letting go of the mystery.

Johnson says he’ll miss the manuscript — and he doesn’t really want the code to be cracked.

“There’s something wonderful about this manuscript that accumulates so many different interpretations, that’s broad enough to encompasses them all at the same time,” he says. “As soon as it’s forced into one particular meaning, then it sort of loses that mystery, and I think that’s sad.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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