The Code and the Key

The Code and the Key
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File

I  worked one summer as a kitchen boy in a Wisconsin summer camp. It was one of those jobs from which you fall down at night near too tired to sleep. A previous occupant of my bunk had left behind a copy of Atlas Shrugged. So I spent the summer, between work and sleep, reading the perfect companion for my teenage summer.

I don’t care for short stories. I prefer the heft of the doorstop book, reassuring me that I can immerse myself in the fantasy for a good long time. “Yes, yes,” I think. “Thank you. Take me. Anywhere but here . . . ”

My companion for the lockdown is The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet, written by David Kahn in 1967 and updated by him in 1996. One thousand pages so interesting that my mind will not reject them even though they are informative.

My new novel, not yet released, is Forty Years at Anstett, a fictional account of one man’s life at a New England prep school. In it, a young man returns from imprisonment in Japan during the Russo–Japanese War. The fellow applies for the job of instructor of languages. He has no academic credentials, but a very practical one: He was forced, in prison, to learn Japanese, Russian, Chinese, and, more important, how to learn languages. He challenges the Head (my protagonist) to point out the dullest lad in the school, to name a language, to leave the applicant alone with the boy for an afternoon, and then to assess his progress in the new tongue.

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