In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative. When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece's Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe's earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery.
Award-winning New York Times journalist Margalit Fox's riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean-the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen-to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the decipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.
©2013 Margalit Fox (P)2013 Tantor
"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)
Letting the rest of the world go by
The author tells the story in three acts: the discovery of the tablets, the unsung heroine, Alice Kober, striving to crack the code, and the actual code cracker Michael Ventris.
There's so much of human nature tied up in this story. You have the discover of the tablets, Arthur Evans, not wanting to share the tables as a whole and wants to keep them as esoterica for his own attempts at solving them. The story of the obsession and logical approach that Alice employs is inspiring and is tinged always with the fact that we the listener knows she will be dying soon.
This story completely held my interest and my mind did not wander while listening, because I was riveted by the details and the process. As the author kept explaining the task at hand I saw the main story as a metaphor for how we learn in life. There's two kinds of approaches to learning (cracking the code of nature), one is deductive (reason) and the other inductive (empirical). To crack the code it first took faith in a deductive approach and certain assumptions needed to be made. But reason alone was not going to crack the code. That's why so many crackpots kept showing up in this story. Coherent stories explaining nature can be told, but coherence alone is not a sufficient condition to explain nature, but coherence is a necessary condition to explain. The crack-pots and amateurs used coherence but not a consistent solution corresponding to reality. The code cracking needed knowledge beyond the tablets themselves for the ultimate decipherment.
The topic is exciting, well explained and the main character and the process they used were inspiring.
I like mysteries (particularly British ones, historical fiction and nonfiction, science fiction and fantasy.
I can think of few stories in 20th archaeology more intriguing than the discovery and translation of Linear B, one of two scripts discovered on the island of Crete during Sir Arthur Edwards excavations there. However, the story available to the average reader lacks some facts that make the main characters more human. In fact I had heard the name of one of the characters for the first time on a radio program this summer.
Divided into three sections this book deals with a short biography of Sir Arthur Evans, the discoverer of Knossos, a huge bronze age site on Crete. Evans' interpretation of what he found there, for good or ill, has influenced the popular vision of the culture he unearthed. One of the greatest of his finds there was the script known as Linear B. At the time it was discovered it was not known what language it represented. As the discoverer Evans had the first right to publish his findings, but as the decades passed he did not do so and he died in 1941 without having cracked the code.
There were, however, a number of other people working on translating linear B, ranging from serious scholars to out and out crackpots. The person who finally managed to do so was British architect, Michael Ventris. His story is the third told in the book and it was rather interesting to learn more about Ventris, his background and his tragic death.
Between the story of Evans and of Ventris though falls a sketch of Alice Kober, the scholar I had not heard about before the summer of 2013. An American teacher she made some valuable contributions to the work.
The narration is good, the subject matter is interesting and the author presents it in a clear manner. I could see lots of grist for scholarly infighting, but as a simple narrative it is well worth listening to for the story it tells.
Also there are instructions on how to go to Tantor media and download the PDFs that were published with the book. Don't bother. Audible has them in your library for quick and easy download.
I mostly listen to books while exercising, which pretty much explains all of the action/thrillers on my list.
This is not so much a story about how the mystery of Linear B was solved as it is about how a woman could have solved it, probably years earlier, if the world hadn't been so prejudiced against her. And, as an older woman who remembers those times, I am sure that is true. But I lived that story and really didn't need it rubbed in my face again. I'm glad someone finally gives her the credit she is due, but I would have liked more about what she actually figured out and how as opposed to the litany of how she got @#$@# over.
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