The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

March is Women’s History Month, so already this month I’ve been seeing lots of posts on social media about great books written by and about important women. The review I have to share with you today is about a woman whose life story is just now being rediscovered as important files from the NSA are being declassified.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a woman who worked for the US Military during both WWI and WWII solving codes. If you’ve seen the movie The Imitation Game, you’ll know that cracking codes was a high-stakes game during the two world wars. The amazing thing about Elizebeth, her husband William, and the other code breakers in the US and around the world at that time is that they were breaking codes with pencils and paper, not with the computer technology we have today.

Elizebeth’s journey towards code-breaking started when she accepted a job working for an eccentric millionaire trying to figure out whether or not Sir Francis Bacon was the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays. She began her career as a student of Shakespeare, and it was that foundation of language that helped her learn to look for codes and break them. This book goes into great detail about her work process and about the science behind code-breaking in general. It was fascinating to hear about the many different types of codes and ciphers used during WWI and WWII, and it was also cool to learn about the different encrypting devices they used. I knew a little about this from watching The Imitation Game, and I knew that code-breaking at Bletchley Park during WWII was a big deal, but I didn’t know that up until almost the end of WWII, the Americans were on their own breaking codes, with almost no help from the British.


I loved that Elizebeth’s journey started with Shakespeare, and I loved reading about her calm, composed manner in the face of trials and adversity. I think that this book would be a great one to add to the list if you’re looking to read about inspiring women. That being said, this book didn’t blow me away–and here’s why.

The reviews I read before purchasing the book compared it to books like The Radium GirlsDead Wake, and Devil in the White City, all of which I loved. While this book was really interesting, I didn’t find it as captivating as the other three I just mentioned. There are two main reasons for this. First of all, it sort of drags towards the end. Secondly, there are a lot of mentions of and examples of codes in this book that really work best if you can see the images. And while there was a digital addition to the book that included these images, I usually listen to audiobooks while driving, so it wasn’t possible for me to look at the enhancement every time it was mentioned. All in all, if this book sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend checking it out in a hard copy instead of in audiobook form–I think you’ll enjoy the experience more that way.

You can purchase the hard copy here, or the audio version here.

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