Books I’ve Read: Cryptonomicon

Or, in this case, books I’ve TRIED to read. Several times. Without ever finishing it.

Cryptonomicon, beneath books I've managed to finish.
Cryptonomicon, beneath books I’ve managed to finish.

Spoilers ahoy!

I have struggled with this book for YEARS. It seemed like something I would enjoy – cryptography, WWII mysteries – and it was critically acclaimed. So I picked it up, got through the first couple hundred pages, then set it down. Months passed. I picked it up again, vowing to complete it this time, only to set it back down. I repeated this process a few times, always beginning the book anew at page 1. But finally – after getting further along than ever before – at page 608, I have set Cryptonomicon down for good. Right as it’s getting interesting. Right as the previous 607 pages of exposition and character development and plot thickening appear to be reaching a point.

Why? Why, after all this time and effort, am I setting aside this book?



Yes, gold – at the point where I’ve closed the book for good, a few of his characters have located an old submarine; stashed away within that submarine is old German gold. (If I recall correctly. I don’t know. I started banging my head on my desk around page 450.)

Who did the gold belong to? Who were they hiding it from? What is the point of this book? Honestly? I don’t care.

All frustrations aside, there are aspects of this book that I did enjoy. The story unfolds through four perspectives: an American cryptanalyst, an American Marine, a Japanese Marine, and an American hacker. The first three perspectives are set during World War II, and it was fascinating to read their varied experiences. Stephenson did a terrific job of capturing both Marines’ mannerisms, and the toll warfare took on their minds and bodies. But especially interesting to me was the cryptanalyst – I have always been intrigued by code-breaking – and intelligence efforts and breakthroughs.

The fourth perspective is set in the current day (I don’t recall an actual date being established, but I presume it is post-Y2K); the hacker is the grandson of the cryptanalyst, and he develops a working relationship with the American Marine’s son and granddaughter. These three are working together when they discover the German U-boat containing the gold – and some of the cryptanalyst’s effects.

I’m sure this is where the going gets good. I’m sure this is where all the backstory comes to a head. Both Americans cross paths during the war, as did both Marines, and I’m sure the current-day protagonists eventually discover this mutual history. I’m sure there is a point. I just don’t care to find it.

600 pages of exposition. 600 pages of backstory. 600 pages of plot development.

Walter Benjamin brutally parodied the “art” of writing fat books a 7-step list of instructions. The entire list can be found here, but I think the first step clarifies exactly why I finally refused to read a single page further: “The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan.

I have no taste for books that are dense for the sake of density, I have no taste for current-day coding and hacking, and I have no desire to complete this 1152-page monstrosity.

Have you completed Cryptonomicon? Do you think I should finish it? Give me your thoughts in the comments!


2 thoughts on “Books I’ve Read: Cryptonomicon

  1. For the record, it bugs me when blogs end posts asking for comments. But since you’re not trying to monetize me or anything, I can make an exception.

    I read Cryptonomicon in high school, and loved it. I’ve always been a sucker for really long books though, I like getting lost in a world for a long time. I haven’t re-read it since, and I know my tastes have changed quite a bit. At some point I may re-read it, but I don’t know if I still have my copy. Is that my copy?

    If you aren’t enjoying yourself, there’s no shame in not finishing a book. It’s supposed to be pleasurable, after all. Stephenson’s books are all kind of like that one: rambling things with bits of history and science thrown in, and usually with protagonists who are sort of blandly capable. Did you ever read Snowcrash? It’s a lot shorter and goofier.


    1. Thanks for commenting in spite of your grievances!

      No, this is not your copy of Cryptonomicon, but you are welcome to have it (I have a much lighter, digital copy). I did ready and enjoy Snow Crash – in fact, Snow Crash is the reason why I re-attempted Cryptonomicon. I just feel so guilty, seeing a book I’ve started but not finished. I’ll just have to live with it!

      Have you read Operation: Mincemeat? I think you’d enjoy it. Real-life covert affairs!


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