The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt

publication date: 2006
pages (including back matter): 319
ISBN: 0-393-05236-2

The Man Who Knew Too Much refers to Alan Turing, a gay Englishman who broke the Nazi’s code in WWII, basically invented the computer, and killed himself while on a forced estrogen treatment given to him by his government to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Embarrassingly, I had not heard of him before I heard of this book.

Turing’s story was incredibly compelling. He was a math and mechanical genius who used his intellect to create the foundation for computers, including a proto-computer that cracked the code of the Nazi coding device, Enigma. Further, his death was avoidable and tragic. However, Turing’s story as told by David Leavitt was sometimes uninteresting and dry.

Leavitt spent a good deal of time explaining the math involved in Turing’s discoveries. There were several passages that included equations, tables, and strings of numbers. I enjoy reading about math so, generally, I didn’t find these passages dull. A few times, however, I didn’t think Leavitt understood what he was explaining (Leavitt is a creative writing professor), which made his explanations muddled, tedious, and hard for me to grasp.

Further, Leavitt did not use nearly as much detail describing Turing’s personal life or experiences as he did describing the math involved. Leavitt instead often spoke in generalities or hypotheticals. For example, Leavitt repeatedly noted Turing was lonely but he provided no further explanation, such as how Leavitt knew he was lonely, what caused his specific loneliness, how he coped with it, or anything of the sort. I’m not sure why Leavitt was so withholding, because the bits of Turing’s life that he did introduce were illuminating. Especially fascinating was a short story Turing wrote about a scientist named Alec Pryce who sexually propositions Ron, a young man.

Leavitt’s discussion of Turing’s death was woefully sparse. With only five pages left in the book, Leavitt wrote, “Mrs. Clayton, his housekeeper, found Alan Turing’s dead body in his bed on the morning of June 8, 1954. Nearby was an apple out of which several bites had been taken.” Leavitt then spent several paragraphs discussing letters written by Turing’s mother after his death. On the last few pages, Leavitt finally reflects on Turing’s suicide, although in only a few paragraphs. Leavitt’s cursory discussion left me wondering what the whole point was. Leavitt clearly was enthralled by Turing’s life and death, but he provided no explanation or reflection as to why.

However, The Man Who Knew Too Much was an enjoyable book that delved into a fascinating life and regrettable death. The book has something to offer to varied types of people, including those interested in math, history, or queer studies.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

Kirkus Reviews
The Independent
Entertainment Weekly

2 comments on “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

  1. Russ says:

    What, exactly, are queer studies. Inquiring minds want to know.

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