…yes, on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s a slick piece of publishing, well-scanned and well-printed with top-notch images that are the crispest I’ve seen. The foldouts (something every previous photo-facsimile I’ve seen has stumbled on) are lovely, and include miniature versions on the lower margin of each page to help you navigate your way around.
As a piece of collectable printing, then, it’s a top-notch piece of work, something that many bibliophiles would be delighted to find in their Christmas stocking: the jolly elves who produced it seem to be more Folio Society than Penguin, let’s say (though not quite Taschen elves).
Is This Photo-Facsimile The Ultimate Voynich Research Tool?
It’s the question that the Beinecke people seem to want people to be asking: but the answer, in a word, is no. The reproductions are so lovely that Ray Clemens’ suggestion that owners might fill their margins with their thoughts seems unduly barbarous: a bit like scribbling on a Jaguar’s leather seats.
And the included essays (Rene Zandbergen’s aside) all have an oddly early-1970s retro feel to them, as if this whole effort was a stopgap for researchers until such time as Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma” comes out.
In each case, you (the reader) get to the end of the essay just at the point where you want it to start: and so each finishes with a jarring emptiness, an <insert-good-research-here> lurch downwards, culminating in a mental picture of knowledgeable writers throwing up their hands in dismay. For example, when Jennifer M. Rampling writes (in her essay on alchemical imagery) “[a]lthough the content of this manuscript is almost certainly not alchemical in nature…” (p.46), it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the futility of the entire exercise.
By way of comparison, what I try to do with Cipher Mysteries is to write each post in such a way that a reader ends each post genuinely knowing more than when they began, and also with an idea of where future archival or research trails from there might lead: something one might reasonably call “Open Source History”.
Compare this with Yale’s photo-facsimile essays, and you’d see that what they offer is very much a closed book: none seems to grasp that the key to making progress with these Sphinxes is to give not only good quality images, but also good quality conceptual tools to work with those images.
Sadly, this is a bus-sized hole in the Voynich dam this present volume doesn’t even attempt to fill.
The Missing Book About The Book
Over the last few years, I’ve been consistently disappointed with the ever-decreasing quality of Voynich discourse. An all-too-common refrain is that new researchers now routinely ignore everything that has gone before in favour of ‘seeing things through their own eyes’. Yet in practice they almost always end up seeing it through exactly the same kind of cracked lens (whether linguistic, cryptographic, or whatever) that countless others have suffered from before: so, not so much “reinventing the wheel” as “reinventing the flat tyre“.
But this is just a superficial rationalization for their laziness and lack of commitment when faced by a sprawling and unfocused research landscape. Few even bother to read D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”, even though it is available for free download on the NSA website. Many of them are convinced that Voynichese is no more than a language protected entirely by obscurity: counting grains of sand would be a more productive use of their time.
All the same, anyone – from amateur to academic – arriving on the Voynich Manuscript’s shores would surely start with the idea in their head that there must be something out there that would give them a good basic introduction. Yet D’Imperio’s workbook-style book came out in 1978, roughly a thousand Internet years in the past: while my own “The Curse of The Voynich” came out a decade ago (and I may as well have carved it on a rock on the far side of the moon for all the effect that it has had). Similarly Churchill and Kennedy’s (2006) book did a good job of answering all the least interesting questions about the manuscript… and so on.
What’s missing is something closer to a “user guide”: that is, something that not only helps readers navigate around and within the Voynich Manuscript’s pages, but also provides a properly foundational set of insights into how its pages were constructed; how to visually parse its content; what the genuine core debates over its features are; and where the edges of the last forty years of research lie. The stuff, in short, that everyone shooting from their hip on a Voynich blog seems to have collectively forgotten.
I shudder to think what anyone from the current generation of researchers might produce in response to such a “user guide” challenge: perhaps a hundred pages of Bax-stylee linguistic noodling, followed by a further fifty pages of Rugg-themed hoaxery? What a horrible thought: Lord save us all from even a paragraph more of each than we have already suffered. 🙁
The Missing Documentary About The Book
A while back, I had the idea to produce a TV documentary on the Voynich Manuscript from the inside out. That is, rather than build up an account of it by peering at it through a long succession of wacky theories (with the by-now obligatory long succession of wacky theorists as talking heads), to instead start from the ink, strokes, and paint and build a fresh evidence-only account of it from the ground up.
A large part of me genuinely wants to transform the cack-handed way people have come to look at these wonderfully edgy subjects, to help them see through the lies and the difficulties to the interesting artefact beneath the mythology and bullsh*t.
Maybe one day I’ll find a way of doing this… but I do somewhat despair at how poxy and formulaic TV history has become that something as genuinely interesting as this looks even remotely left-field.
I guess all I’m trying to say is that I don’t really blame Yale for the yawning hole at the centre of their book: it’s a hole at the centre of the entire way people look at mysterious ciphers. But if I were to say that their beautifully-produced photo-facsimile even begins to tackle the problems of getting academics to look at the Voynich Manuscript in a useful or constructive way, it would be a big fat lie. Because right now, nothing comes even remotely close to doing this: and we’re all the worse for that. 🙁