David Kahn. The Codebreakers. The Story of Secret Writing. 1181 pages.
Scribner. New York. Revised edition, 1996. $65.00 ISBN 0-684-8310-9.
It has been almost 30 years since the first edition of the this hefty
tome was published. The new edition adds information right up to the
Internet, or so the dust jacket says. The first edition of The
Codebreakers, published in 1967, was a monumental work covering more
history of secret communications in its 1,164 pages than any three, or
maybe even four, other such books, if you could even find them. When I
saw this new, updated edition in the bookstore, I snatched it up before
someone else tried to wrestle it from my hands. I could hardly wait to
get home to start reading.

The depths of disappointment are usually equal to the heights of
expectations, but this one hit especially hard. The revised and updated
edition consists of a sixteen page chapter at the end of the book, one
photograph exchanged and a one page preface for the new edition. The
additional chapter, which promises to present the new world created in
the 30 years, adds almost nothing to the book. Moreover, the
photographs in this new edition are not as sharp as the first
edition's, nor is the contrast as high quality. I am not sure exactly
why they were degraded for the new edition. The replacement of the
photographs of a cuneiform cryptogram and a 6th century wood ostracon
with Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast is a bit of a mystery. The
cuneiform and Coptic writing is legible whereas the point of the
Rembrandt is not. The painting shows a celestial hand inscribing a
code, but you cannot see the letters in the reproduction.

All the illustrations are the same, the chapter notes have not changed,
not even the limited bibliography is changed in the slightest. However,
the two sets of photographs grouped between pages 268-269 and between
pages 556-557 in the first edition are now between pages 270-271 and
558-559, respectively, in the new, updated edition. I guess that counts
for something. And although there are no chapter notes for the new
chapter, it did get indexed, increasing the index by a page.

It is hard for me to understand how David Kahn could produce such great
work, then be involved in the likes of this. Perhaps he explains it
best in the new preface when he states:

"At the same time, the absorption of Macmillan, the original publisher,
by Simon & Schuster brought a young, energetic editor named Scott
Meyers to handle The Codebreakers. He saw that I could fulfill my
obligations to cryptology and at the same time help the book sell
better by incorporating the new material as a single chapter."

Kahn acknowledges that a lot has happened since 1967 in the world of
cryptology. It is a shame he did not put the same effort into it as he
he had for the rest of the history. It would have been worth buying.
But since this is not the case, if you liked the first edition, then
you will like the new edition (except for the diminished quality of the
photographs and the $65.00). However, if you did not purchase the
first edition then this edition is worth acquiring.