The Reading Room


Neal Stephenson

Published: 2000

As the old saying goes, never judge a book by its cover (especially if it is actually a book). On the face of it Cryptonomicon looks like a spontaneous airport purchase of a bog-standard trashy but fun thriller. The provenance of its recommendation suggested otherwise. The story was a favourite of the Paypal founding mafia as revealed in Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One (see my review here) and no doubt amongst the broader tech community during the height of the dotcom bubble when it was published.
Set across two timelines – World War II and the present day (late 1990s) there is plenty of thrilling action based on historic events as indicated by the explosion graphic on the cover. This action is however a backdrop to the more technically inclined protagonists who were called upon to make a difference during the conflict. The main characters rub shoulders with fictional representations of historical figures. For instance Lawrence Pritchard is an American mathematics prodigy who works alongside Alan Turing whilst General Macarthur, Herman Goring and Admiral Yamamoto feature amongst others. There are likeable and detestable characters on both the Axis and Allied sides alongside unlikely friendships such as Sgt Bobby Shaftoe of the US Marines and Goto Dengo a Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army.
Science-fiction is often viewed as a precursor to science-fact and the modern timeline centres around Randy Pritchard (Lawrence’s grandson) and his efforts to set up a data haven in the Pacific as a necessary precursor to establish Government-free digital money or digital gold.
Within the story, the Cryptonomicon has nothing to do with currencies but is a compendium of how to decrypt enemy codes. Once the hard work is done, the book enlightens on the extraordinary lengths the Allies went to ensure that the Axis wasn’t aware that Enigma and Purple had been cracked.
The story is exceptional, moving, and in places very humorous. Stephenson uses the narrative to consider a confluence of subject matters ranging from history (for instance what may have the Nazis and Japanese done with all that gold?), mathematics, cultural traditions, the distinction between free markets and corporatism, strategy (the combination of guile and bravery to overcome raw aggression), and the intersection of technology and philosophy. The chapter on the merits of Athena relative to the broader ancient Greek mythological deity universe is particularly worth waiting for.
One can imagine that the main challenge with writing lengthy novels with multiple characters and interconnecting plots and subplots is avoiding anti-climax. The resolution of Cryptonomicon when both storylines ultimately collide is both satisfying and stimulating. Whilst it has proven difficult to write this review without revealing too much, I hope it has gotten across how excellent the book is. On can see why it appealed to the Paypal mafia amongst others who were no doubt not as quick to judge it by its cover like I was.

Amul Pandya
January 2021

The information contained above and in other entries in the Ocean Dial Book Review Series is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only, and should not be relied upon in making, or refraining from making, any investment decisions. No information provided herein should or can be taken to constitute any form of advice or recommendation as to the merits of any investment decision. You should take independent advice from a suitably qualified investment adviser before making any investment decisions.

A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65

David Kynaston

Published: 2023, Bloomsbury Publishing

A Northern Wind brings to vivid life the period between October 1962 and February 1965 in Britain. With masterful storytelling refreshing familiar events, this reveals in all their variety, the experiences of the people living through this history.

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Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus

Published: 2022, Doubleday; Penguin.

Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing.
But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take a very unscientific view of equality. Forced to resign, she reluctantly signs on as the host of a cooking show, Supper at Six. But her revolutionary approach to cooking, fuelled by scientific and rational commentary, grabs the attention of a nation.

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A Book of Simple Living

Ruskin Bond

Published: 2015, Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited

This personal diary records the many small moments that constitute a life of harmony-with the self, the natural world, and friends, family and passersby. ‘A Book of Simple Living’ is a gift of beauty and wisdom from India’s most loved, and most understated, writer.

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