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cryptogram-a-day book

11 november 2011

Cryptogram-A-Day Book is a book that I had to solve in order to read, and it took me a little over two years instead of the prescribed one. Yet over those two years I spent quite a lot of time doing extremely close reading of its sententious contents, one letter pattern at a time. I reckon I ought to try to make some sense of what I got out of it.

B HJNQ FPMUIJXPZNT, or rather, I LOVE CRYPTOGRAMS – the three-word example I've just given you being very hard to solve. Though even there you have a tiny bit of purchase: the B must be A or I, the only two letters that are themselves words (unless some bastard of a cryptographer sneaks in "O TEMPORA! O MORES!") When I was young I was baffled by the various ciphers I saw in newspapers and kids' magazines. I read Edgar Allan Poe's "Gold Bug" and was no better off than beforehand, since the frequency of the letter "E" in a given cryptogram wasn't likely to be greater than that of any other letter. In fact, unless you have a large sample size, frequency tables are not all that helpful; cryptographers know about them, and try to fool you by choosing texts that have unusual letter frequencies. Good cryptograms also avoid I, A, and THE. But they can't avoid vowels, and unless they choose very arcane bits of the language, they can't avoid English spelling patterns. Most of one's skill with cryptograms comes from pattern recognition, not statistics. You see KRHH YSDO and a bit later IXLR YSDO, and given what people are likely to spell in English, you suddenly tip to LESS THAN and MORE THAN.

The first cryptograms I ever solved were in a weird little cross between game and book called The Cipher File (by "Rosetta Sherwood Stone"). It was a box with forty sheets of paper (glued together like a notepad?); each sheet contained a sententious cipher. I remember the first one I solved: "Originality is a pair of fresh eyes," by T.W. Higginson. I don't think I'd ever heard of T.W. Higginson at the time; much later, I was to hear endless amounts about him, as Emily Dickinson's inadvertent and somewhat gormless mentor, who may not have had eyes as fresh as her poetry required. So the first cipher I ever solved was both cryptic and ironic.

Louise Moll also specializes in the sententious. I first encountered her work in Clever Cryptograms, a book that organizes great quotations by their authors: George Eliot, Ayn Rand, that sort of quotable writer. Cryptogram-A-Day Book has the same level and kind of epigrams, though they're a little shorter on average, the authors' names are themselves encrypted, and the ciphers are arranged by day of the month: 366 in all.

Moll's emphasis on sententiousness makes the book easier to solve than a collection of contextless short sentences might otherwise be. Many a saying in Cryptogram-A-Day Book begins with the word LIFE, EVERY, NO, WE, or some take on MAN (there's no gender neutrality in the pithy tradition, I'm afraid). Yet many are short enough to be a decent challenge just after morning coffee.

I began mid-book to wonder if it was fair to look at the encrypted names of the authors. There's a lot of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and MARK TWAIN in the volume, and if you get those letters you're away in a hack. Moll has an odd habit of spelling out the extended names of LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA and FRIEDRICH WILHELM NIETZSCHE – the first time you see them, there may be some obscuring factor, but the next few, you can't help but fill them in without thinking.

It would be very spoilerish to quote too many of the quotations, if a reader intends to get and work the book some day. My favorite, in any case, is the one for 2 January: "The unfortunate thing about this world is that good habits are so much easier to give up than bad ones" (Somerset Maugham). Given that 1 January is solved on the back of the book, that leaves you 364 unsolved ones. Have at it.

I solved 365 of them; the one that stumped me was legitimately tough. It is by JUDAH LEIB LAZEROV, which is a very unfamiliar pattern (and a wholly unfamiliar writer to me). Its word order is very artificial and "poetic," with inversions that make it hard to parse. And this despite THE, IT and IS right in the middle of the cipher; I filled them in early and I was still defeated. Though sometimes it didn't take a tough one to defeat me. Later in the year I spent two days on a cryptogram that included the sequence WOA OAJUW. For some reason my Spoonerish brain convinced me that the second "OA" was "AO": meaning that WOA couldn't be THE. Well, of course it's THE, and WOA OAJUW is THE HEART, a common phrase in the book. But tell that to my caffeine-shocked cerebrum.

I became fascinated as the 366 cryptograms wore on by the proliferation of deep-thinking writers that I had never heard of. JOSH BILLINGS! ARTEMUS WARD! LOGAN PIERSALL SMITH! WILSON MIZNER! HOLBROOK JACKSON! AUSTIN O'MALLEY! There's quite a lot of Henry Ward Beecher and Henry David Thoreau in the book too, as well as Voltaire and La Rochefoucauld and Madame de Stael, Confucius and Lao-Tse, Juvenal and Socrates. But the typical quotation is from somebody with a homespun American name that rolls off the tongue, and includes equal parts sage advice and hilarious wisecrack. In utter ignorance, I imagine some academy for wags in some burg like Zanesville, Ohio, where young men of the late 19th century with names like Jefferson Jenkins and Brutus O'Leary were trained to reflect on every one of life's eventualities with a wry remark. All that is left now of these pocket-edition Ambrose Bierces is a literally cryptic epigram or two.

Moll, Louise B. Cryptogram-A-Day Book. New York: Sterling, 1996.