Its name sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, and it has bamboozled generations of spies. An emperor reputedly once owned it, the Jesuits later acquired it and Yale University now has the infuriating thing. For those in the know, all that is needed is to roll one’s eyes and mutter about the Voynich Manuscript, which was discovered (or, technically, rediscovered) a century ago this year.
Wisely, Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library decided to be open about so controversial an item, and the entire manuscript has been posted online for scrutiny. There, one finds an object that initially does not seem to merit the fuss.
Physically, the manuscript is not large and has been measured (at a laboratory hired by the Beinecke Library) at just 23.5 x 16.2 cm, or just over 9” x 6”. Nor is it very lengthy. It once had no more than 116 leaves (or folios), each numbered on only one side, but 14 of them vanished as much as centuries ago, so just 102 remain. Counting both sides of each leaf, that makes 204 “pages,” although purists can be fussy on that point. (For the record, the Beinecke Library follows the convention whereby the leaf or folio on the right side of an open book is referred to as “recto,” while the reverse of that same leaf is “verso.” Thus, instead of references like “page 9,” one instead gets “folio 9 recto.”)
Once the technical minutia is out of the way, however, amazement follows. The manuscript is handwritten in a tidy, curvy format that cannot be read by anyone. When the individual characters of the writing are transliterated into a format of Roman letters adopted by Voynich buffs for the sake of convenience, the text provides such extreme nonsense as: “yteedy qotal dol shedy qokedar chcthey otordoror qokal otedy qokedy qokedy dal qokedy qokedy skam.”
The writing is accompanied by hundreds of illustrations, which one would expect to provide some guidance, but the opposite is the case. The pictures include perplexing charts of the cosmos, lots of unidentified plants and images of naked women either bathing or interacting with a bizarre network of tubes. (And the tubes are not even phallic: Sometimes, the women are inside them.)
Fareed Zakaria—host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, editor-at-large for TIME, and columnist for the Washington Post—was recently implicated in a plagiarism scandal. Conservative media watchdog Newsbusters found that portions of aTIME article he wrote on gun control were borrowed without attribution from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Zakaria apologized for his error, explaining that he had confused his handwritten notes. His publishers each suspended him for a month, but TIMEand CNN rescinded their bans after only a week, once their investigations found no additional problems.
Plagiarism is a serious ethical breach. At Yale University—where Zakaria matriculated and was, until recently, a trustee—plagiarists can be expelled. Last month, Zakaria resigned from Yale’s board shortly after the scandal, saying he wanted to “focus on the core of my work.”
However, there is another issue of journalistic ethics that should concern Zakaria’s critics: “buckraking”—accepting large fees for speaking engagements from industry interests he covers. Zakaria is one of many celebrity speakers represented by the Royce Carlton broker agency. His booking fee is proprietary information that Carlton Sedgeley, the agency’s president, refused to disclose to me. However, one person who tried to book Zakaria in 2008 for a speaking engagement was quoted a price of $75,000 for a one-hour talk, according to journalist Ken Silverstein.
Such lucrative compensation has led some critics to wonder whether journalists should be permitted to accept speaking engagements from industry interests they cover. In aColumbia Journalism Review article on the subject, Paul Starobin questioned Zakaria’s coverage of financial issues while accepting speaking engagements from, among other firms, Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price. Until recently, one could have seen a list on the Royce Carlton Web site of the firms that hired Zakaria and recommended him, but that list has been scrubbed and is in the process of being revised. (Compare the current list with the previous one in the documents at the end of this article.)
“People have been using it incorrectly, so we’ve taken [the recommendations] down,” said Sedgeley, who claimed there was at least one error on it. “It’s not a definitive list.” Only one recommendation—from Stanford University—is currently displayed.
Consider this an apology. And a lesson learned.
There are too many lessons to learn, especially the ones learned from experience, the mistakes you can’t fix, the ones you just have to apologize for. I hate those. This is one.
It has to do with when and whether it’s right to get in people’s faces with awful truths you believe in—but which you know (or should know) are going to hurt their feelings. Or rob them of their consolatory protective mechanisms. We all need consolatory protective measures. But who’s to decide how important it is to strip them away from other people for the sake of forcing them to face the purported truth? Even in academe, is truth the only value?
It’s taken me a while to realize where I went wrong. The inciting incident took place at the end of last year, when I gave a guest lecture at Stanford. The occasion was an angry outburst during the question period. Not so much a question but an anguished, enraged protest.
For the record, I’m not an academic (I’m a Yale-lit grad-school dropout); the lecture invitation grew out of a book I’m writing on Bob Dylan for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. The title I gave my lecture was “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.”
I had a theory about Dylan and God, Dylan and the Holocaust—and the impact their conjuncture had on American culture. I’d argued that Dylan and his impact had been misconstrued by most Dylanologists; that he should not be situated with rustic pastorals or popular-front folkies, but with the urban, mostly Jewish, mostly literary “black humor” movement of the 60s, which ranged across genres, from Lenny Bruce to Bruce Jay Friedman, Joseph Heller to Stanley Kubrick. A movement whose absurdist nihilism—which reaches a viciously eloquent peak in Yossarian’s denunciation of God in Catch-22—was a response to two holocausts: Hitler’s, still only 15 years past, and the nuclear holocaust that seemed—especially after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—just a shot away.
Dylan and Hitler? Was I forcing a conjunction? Some time before the lecture, I made what I thought was an important discovery in a pizza parlor. Well, it was while reading in a pizza parlor that I came across a line Dylan had written about Hitler that hardly anyone seemed to have noticed before. Yes he’d referred at least once in his lyrics to the Holocaust (in “With God on Our Side”), but I had no recall of an explicit mention of Hitler in the songs, and never in such a compressed and deeply expressive way.
Paul Lorem epitomizes a blunt truth about the world: talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Lorem, 21, is an orphan from a South Sudanese village with no electricity. His parents never went to school, and he grew up without adult supervision in a refugee camp. Now he’s a freshman at Yale University.
All around the world, remarkable young men and women are on edge because today they finally hear of admissions decisions from Yale and a number of other highly competitive universities. So a word of encouragement: No one ever faced longer odds than Paul Lorem, and he made it.
“How I got to Yale was pure luck, combined with lots of people helping me,” Lorem told me as we sat in a book-lined study on the Yale campus. “I had a lot of friends who maybe had almost the same ability as me, but, due to reasons I don’t really understand, they just couldn’t make it through. If there’s one thing I wish, it’s that they had more opportunity to get education.”
Lorem’s family comes from a line of cattle-herders in the southeastern part of South Sudan. The area is remote. Villagers live in thatch-roof huts, and there is no functioning school or health clinic. The nearest paved road is several days’ walk away.