I don't think I will ever believe a book jacket blurb again. "Intimate, perceptive and insightful, it's also the most readable biography I've picked up in some time." I beg to differ. I found Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges dense, difficult, and tedious. There is a reason I haven't posted a review here in quite some time. It took me that long to slog through the book. I broke my own rule by reading a biography instead of a novel or a memoir for the We Read Diverse Books challenge, and I lived to regret it. Alan Turing was in many ways the father of the computer, the prime mind behind the British breaking of the German military code in WW2, and a homosexual in an era where it was quite dangerous to be so.
Please don't get me wrong. If you are looking for an academic review of the facts of Alan Turing's life, told with sympathy, this is an excellent book. But don't expect it to be easy reading. You should have a good grounding in both math and science, because Hodges spends a lot of time talking about the development of Turing's thought in these areas, plus a good knowledge of British society and culture, plus a good grounding in literature, especially Alice in Wonderland as Hodges uses an extensive metaphor based on the book which he never bothers to explain to those readers who don't share his familiarity with the book. The references to French and German literature (with snippets in the original languages) I caught, because that was my area of study, but if your general culture isn't very wide, you are going to be lost a good deal of the time. I should have cut my losses and run, but I'm stubborn that way.
Hodges likes to be oblique, which turns too much of the book into a puzzle. He will throw out a metaphor, and leave it up to you to puzzle out where the reference comes from and what he is referring to. In one spot, he talks about a meeting between Turing and another scientist and then quotes one of them looking back on it without telling you which one was talking. I re-read it three times and never did figure it out. There was also no footnote to refer to, which is a no-no in any serious work, and one of the rare times he messed up in that department. I do like it when an author respects my intelligence and doesn't spell everything out for my, but there is a point at which it becomes a vast puzzle and I quickly grew weary of it. And some of it was just plain sloppy writing. A "they" which clearly does not refer to the last plural noun, so you have to stop and figure out who "they" is. (I'm taking this from page 642 of the paperback.) "They had made some incredible mistakes, and how could they be sure Alan Turing was not another, given his instructions from the Red Queen twenty years before? (He might have made clear who or what the Lewis Carroll's Red Queen was a metaphor several chapters earlier, but there's been a lot of water under the bridge and I'm darned if I'm going to leaf back to figure it out.) What would constitute a proof? It was Wittgenstein's awkward question, (yes, Wittgenstein has been mentioned, but if the awkward question had been referenced 400 pages earlier, it has quite slipped my mind at this point) applied to real life." And really, the whole book was like that.
If you want an idea of what life was like for a British homosexual in the first half of the twentieth century, you will be well served. Hodges is at his best when he gets more personal. It is not anywhere near the level of intimacy you would get from a memoir, but he is aiming at an objective view of the facts, and he does accomplish that well. His skills as a storyteller could use some work; I almost threw the book in frustration when I came across this line: "A year later, on the evening of 7 June 1954, he killed himself." This at the end of a paragraph about something else. And yes, Hodges had skipped ahead a whole year in the life of Turing, and thrown that fact out with no preamble. He then goes back and lists all the reasons why this was totally unexpected, and pretty much convinced me that there is some serious doubt whether it was a suicide at all. This is not what he intended to do.
So, to sum up, this is a good definitive biography, but a very difficult read. If you want to know more about Alan Turing, read it, buy it, keep it. But be prepared to be challenged.