Connoisseurs of esoteric books – and who isn’t when you can get them for free? – should be delighted by this double treasure. The Voynich Manuscript and Codex Seraphinianus are two of the most bizarre, mysterious, and visually ravishing arcane tomes around. And the Holybooks website has both of them in (admittedly huge) PDFs, for free download.
The Voynich Manuscript, held at Yale University, is one of the most baffling enigmas in the history of cryptography. Written in the early 15th century in a completely unknown script, it has defied successive efforts to unscramble its text. Its 240 pages and herbal, astronomical, and other illustrations, however, are delights in themselves (see above). And if you want to pit your mind against some of the world’s greatest linguists and cryptographers, you can download the PDF and take a shot at it yourself.
Codex Seraphinianus, meanwhile, is a far more modern work, published in 1981 by Italian artist and architect Luigi Serafini. Its writing system, although far more modern and the creation of a living writer, has proven just as difficult to crack, though Serafini himself has said that there is no hidden meaning in the text and he composed it by a process similar to automatic writing. Its images, presented as illustrations to an encyclopedia of an imaginary world, are just as enigmatic and probably far more disturbing than those of the Voynich Manuscript. And once again, despite its relatively recent publication date, you can access it for free at the Holybooks website.
That should satisfy all your esoteric ebook needs for quite some time to come. Only, TeleRead accepts no responsibility for mystical experiences, fugue states, or occult manifestations experienced during the perusal of these volumes …
If you’re looking for an obsession that will consume the rest of your life, the Voynich Manuscript would be a good choice. As the Wikipedia article notes, it gives numerous indications of being written in a real language and encrypted in some fashion. The difficulties lie with the fact that the language, the encryption scheme, and what it’s saying are unknown. It’s a riddle at many levels. Whoever solves it will be famous.
Alas, you can’t use tricks the British used to break Enigma in WWII. They knew what they were breaking was in German. They had ways to get to get ‘cribs,’ meaning a partial understanding of what the text was likely to say (i.e. weather reports used certain words). And they understood enough of the mechanics of Enigma to know that no letter was ever encrypted as itself. The last proved to be a critical flaw.
For a marvelous description of how Enigma was broken, watch these videos by Numberphile:
–Mike Perry, editor on Chesterton on War and Peace