- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Ecco; Reprint edition (April 15, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0062228862
- ISBN-13: 978-0062228864
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 213 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code Paperback – April 15, 2014
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“Fox is a talented storyteller, and she creates an atmosphere of almost nail-biting suspense. . . . This one deserves shelf space along such classics of the genre as Simon Singh’s The Code Book.” (Booklist (starred review))
“A fascinating yarn centered around an unlikely heroine. . . . Fox’s deft explanations of the script-solving process allow readers to share in the mental detective work of cracking the lost language.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Fox recreates the emergence of one of history’s most vexing puzzles—and then puts readers alongside the remarkable figures who, brilliantly, obsessively, and even tragically, devoted their lives to solving it. Forget the Da Vinci Code. This is the real thing.” (Toby Lester, author of Da Vinci's Ghost)
“Margalit Fox describes the decipherment of Linear B in such lucid detail that any reader can follow the steps and participate in the thrill of discovery.” (Stephen Mitchell, translator of Gilgamesh and the Iliad)
“Fox’s achievement here is to make this fascinating tale accessible to a broader audience.” (Washington Post)
“… a nail-biting intellectual and cultural adventure.” (The Times UK)
“Deft, sharply written … Fox’s account runs with the pace and tension of a detective story - and has much to say about language and writing systems along the way.” (The Guardian UK)
“[Fox] … has cracked it, fashioning an intellectual puzzle into an engrossing detective story of driven personalities, hidden clues, perseverance and intuition. In the process, she has uncovered a remarkable woman who had been buried by history.” (Sunday Times UK)
“As with any good detective story, there’s a driving narrative behind the puzzle, peopled by solitary sleuths.” (The Guardian US)
From the Back Cover
The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the true story of the quest to solve one of the most mesmerizing linguistic riddles in history and of the three brilliant, obsessed, and ultimately doomed investigators whose combined work would eventually crack the code. An award–winning journalist trained as a linguist, Margalit Fox not only takes readers step-by-step through the forensic process involved in cracking an ancient secret code, she restores one of the primary investigators, Alice Kober, to her rightful place in what is one of the most remarkable intellectual detective stories of all time.
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I read Fox's book on my Kindle and was so fascinated by it that I wanted to have the lengthy end notes to turn to while reading and bought the hardcover to reread. I don't remember the last book that compelled me to do this.
The Riddle is not only the breaking of the Linear B Minoan code but how the code broke the unique people who were drawn to it.
Don't imagine that this book is as dry as the the earth that gave up the ancient tablets written in Linear B. It's a great detective and biography story rolled into one book. Highly recommended.
Margalit Fox has long written obituaries for the New York Times, but as I understand this is her first book. There is something about her style which strikes me as "relentlessly fair". I felt I came away with a sense of each of the major players as people and professionals largely devoid of speculation, which I admire.
This book is as remarkable for being an account of research in wartime as it is of deciphering an ancient language. It should give us pause to consider the conditions under which scholars operated in the mid-20th century, when WWII interrupted not only the communication and travel channels of academics, but their supplies of paper, ink, food and fuel. The scholars in this tale could not take correspondence for granted, and sent their manuscripts to Europe packed alongside instant soup and oranges preserved in wax. As late as 1948, fuel rations in England could only keep the temperature in Cambridge's libraries at around 50 F. Think about that for a moment, and consider doing what these people did under similar circumstances.
Fox devotes one section to each of the people she sees as having been most important in the decryption of Linear B scripts. First, she tackles the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who unearthed the series of clay tablets while excavating the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete in 1902. Evans fell in love with the culture he imagined flourished on Crete or, more accurately, with his own ideas about it. Evans became one of the grandfathers of modern archaeology, and even his unsupported theories held sway for decades after his death.
Second, Fox seeks to restore to prominence the contributions of Alice Elizabeth Kober, a professor of classics at Brooklyn College. Kober spent nearly two decades obsessively devoted to solving the problem of Linear B, working mostly alone at her kitchen table, but corresponding with dozens of scholars. She took a calculated, scientific, and incredibly effort-intensive approach, essentially building an analog database on hand-made punch cards. It was a brilliant move, as it freed her from conscious and unconscious assumptions that derailed other attempts. It seems she was considered one of the leaders in the field in her own time, but a combination of financial limitations, gender bias and tragedy kept her from devoting her life to researching Linear B full-time before her early death in 1950. It seems Kober's primary occupation was known only to the handful of scholars working seriously on Linear B. She did not publish much in her short life, and was by all accounts a fairly introverted person who did occasional give lectures, but never enjoyed public speaking. Ventris himself did not give her sufficient credit for building the extensive foundation that allowed him to crack Linear B two years after her death, but then again it may simply be that he himself did not live long enough to give credit where credit was due. Kober's papers have only recently become accessible to scholars, and they demonstrate just how extensive her correspondence was with the leading scholars working on Linear B, and how vital her contribution was to the ultimate solution.
Third, Fox turns to the genius who finally cracked the code, a young architect named Michael Ventris. Ventris was a savant in terms of both quantitative reasoning and language acquisition. He knew dozens of languages, and could pick up a new one at the drop of a hat. Ventris became interested in Linear B as a boy, partly as an escape from his cold and unhappy upbringing. In every phase of life, Linear B became something of a refuge for Ventris; he allegedly brought his decryption materials on board the RAF bomber where he served as navigator during WWII. However, it's possible that the tortured inner world that drove Ventris so completely into complex intellectual puzzles got the best of him in the end.
Evans, Kober and Ventris each devoted much of their lives to decoding Linear B, often to the exclusion of family, friends or other official responsibilities. Something about the lure of this puzzle compelled each of them to spend hours, months and years cracking the code. Margalit Fox does an admirable job in exploring the personalities, motivations and methods of each of them, and how each provided an indispensable piece of the solution.