Mental Floss

10 Books and Texts That Are Actually Impossible to Read

Lorna Wallace
A page from Beinecke MS 408, also known as the Voynich Manuscript.
A page from Beinecke MS 408, also known as the Voynich Manuscript. / Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Impossible is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to reading. It’s often used hyperbolically to describe difficult classics, and that’s exactly what a Google search of “books that are impossible to read” leads to. While some texts are basically unreadable, not many are truly impossible to consume. Below are 10 books that are actually unintelligible (except, maybe, to the authors themselves). Some are written in codes or ciphers that haven’t been cracked, while others are purposefully designed to remain incomprehensible forever.

1. The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is one of the most well-known texts written in an unknown writing system. Is it an invented or lost natural language? Some form of cryptography, or merely a hoax? Nobody knows for sure. What is known is that its pages have been carbon-dated to the 15th century and its earliest known owner was supposedly Emperor Rudolf II. Modern-day interest in the mysterious tome kicked off in 1912—the year it was acquired by book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, whose name is now associated with it.

Along with the unidentified text, the pages are filled with colorful botanical drawings. Some believe this indicates that it may have been a reference book but the illustrations themselves raise questions because most of the plants depicted can’t be unambiguously identified. To add to the confusion, there are also astronomical and astrological drawings and—perhaps most bizarre of all—depictions of naked women bathing in interconnected tubs filled with green liquid.

Despite countless attempts to crack the secrets of the Voynich, with solutions ranging from it being a coded Hebrew text to the only known example of a proto-romance language, but cryptography experts remain unconvinced. The manuscript is currently housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, but the entire thing has been digitized for public perusal.

2. The Rohonc Codex

A book with strange text and illustrations.
A copy of the Rohonc Codex. / Klaus.Schmeh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Among the vast library donated to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by nobleman Gusztáv Batthyány in 1838 was the unreadable 448-page Rohonc Codex. The origins of the codex are unknown, and its contents remain cryptic. Some believe that the justification of the text to the right margin suggests that the symbols should be read from right to left. There are also almost cartoon-like illustrations, which, according to Benedek Láng, a professor at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, depict “Christ in a Gospel-like story.”

Like the Voynich Manuscript, it’s still not even certain whether the Rohonc Codex is an unknown language, a cipher, or a hoax. In 2018, two Hungarian researchers announced they had cracked it; however, in 2022, Chris Christensen, professor of mathematics at the Northern Kentucky University, noted that, “Their research suggests that the codex is breviary-like and consists mostly of readings from the New Testament. But some problematic sections remain and some grammatical peculiarities are unexplained.” Whether this goes down as the beginnings of a solution or another dead-end remains to be seen, but the text is available online for anyone who wants to have their own go at deciphering it.

3. The Beale Ciphers

In 1885, an anonymously written pamphlet called The Beale Papers was published; it told the story of Robert Moriss, he was supposedly given the papers by a friend who had been holding them for frontiersman and adventurer Thomas J. Beale. Inside were three ciphers that would supposedly reveal the location, contents, and heirs to Beale’s treasure after they were fully decoded. The pamphlet provides the decryption of the second cipher (according to the pamphlet’s author, the United States Declaration of Independence was the key), which detailed the treasure as nearly 3000 pounds of gold, more than 5000 pounds of silver, and some jewels to top it all off.

However, the other two ciphers have not yet been cracked, and searches in Bedford County, Virginia, where the treasure is allegedly hidden have proven fruitless (and penniless). The decoding efforts of the Beale Cipher Association, founded in 1969, failed (the association disbanded in 1999), as have professional cryptanalysts and computer programs. This has led to speculation that the ciphers are a hoax, but the lure of potential buried treasure has kept the mystery alive.

4. The Ripley Scroll

Many of the texts on this list are written in unknown languages or codes; by contrast, the Ripley Scroll can be read, since it was written in Latin and English—though, as Christie’s Kay Sutton, Director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, noted, the Scroll is “couched in rather obscure and arcane terminology.” Which means that figuring out what the Scroll actually means has proven elusive.

It appears to be a set of richly illustrated poetic instructions for creating the mystical Philosopher’s Stone, but—aside from that being an impossible task—the instructions are far from clear. “The relations between the Scroll images and poems are both ambiguous and complex,” Anke Timmermann, a historian of medieval and early modern alchemy, wrote in Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry, calling the Scroll “confused and confusing.”

There are currently 23 copies of the Scroll—all with slight variations in imagery, color, and size—known to exist, but their provenance is uncertain. The Scroll is named after George Ripley, a 15th-century English alchemist, because his verses are used on it—but there’s no direct evidence of his involvement in creating the Scrolls, most of which actually date from the 16th and 17th centuries. There’s no information on who commissioned and created them, or why they did so.

So can the words of the Ripley Scroll be read? Technically yes. But are they intelligible in the context of the drawings? Not really.

5. Ben Denzer’s 20 Slices of American Cheese

What defines a book? Ben Denzer’s 20 Slices of American Cheese was created to ask that very question. Instead of ink inscribed words on paper pages, his book consists of 20 plastic-wrapped Kraft cheese slices housed within a traditional hardback book cover—which is, of course, bright yellow to match the contents. The cheese book may not be readable beyond the few words on the cover and spine, but it can be found in a few libraries across the U.S. and at the University of Oxford. Kraft Singles are shelf stable, so the book can be stored alongside regular books on library shelves, albeit usually within a plastic container. The cheese obviously won’t last forever, though, so time is running out to “read” it.

This isn’t Denzer’s only food-related bookish art project, either; he has also created 20 Slices of Meat (in this case, mortadella), 20 Sweeteners, and 5 Ketchups.

6. The Books in the Future Library Project

The Silent Room in Oslo Public Library, Norway, houses a growing collection of manuscripts that aren’t available for reading—at least, not yet. These manuscripts belong to the Future Library Project, which was conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson and started in 2014. Each year, an author is invited to add a book to the collection, and in 2114, the 100 manuscripts will be published, printed on paper made from a specially planted forest. Many of the authors who will eventually contribute to the project haven’t even been born yet.

Margaret Atwood was the first author to contribute a manuscript, but beyond the title of the book (Scribbler Moon), nothing is known of the contents. David Mitchell, who added From Me Flows What You Call Time to the library, accidentally leaked one detail about his story, though: Lyrics from the Beatles song Here Comes the Sun are included—they’ll be in the public domain, and therefore free of charge, by the time of publishing.

Paterson will never read a word of the project she created and many of the authors will die without seeing how their work was received. Although it comes with the obvious frustrations of unsatisfied curiosity for authors and readers alike, the project encourages long-term thinking and hope for the future.

7. Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky

Xu Bing’s Tiānshū (天书), or A Book from the Sky in English, was completed in 1991; it’s made up of four volumes written using 4000 symbols that resemble Chinese characters but are actually utterly meaningless. The pseudo-Chinese characters were designed to look as real as possible; as Xu’s website notes, “The work simultaneously invites and denies the viewer’s desire to read the work.”

Art historian Wu Hung  wrote in a 1994 issue of Public Culture that the English title of Xu’s project “fails to convey the nuance of the Chinese phrase.” While tiān shū can mean “the mysterious divine canon of a religious sect,” colloquially, it also means nonsense. He thus suggests that it would “be more appropriate to call Xu’s composition of fake characters Nonsense Writing.”

In 2003, Xu began work on a project with the opposite effect: A Book from the Ground, written using a visual language composed of universally understood symbols, can be read by anyone with knowledge of contemporary society. The story follows a day in the life of a typical office worker.

8. James Hampton’s St. James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation

An open notebook with handwriting in code
Pages from 'St. James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation.' / Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Harry Lowe

After janitor James Hampton died in 1964, the landlord of his rented garage discovered a huge religious sculpture along with a notebook written in an unknown language. The art piece, known as the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, was inspired by visions that Hampton received of Christ’s second coming; he created it from scavenged materials over 14 years. The found objects—which include cardboard, light bulbs, and jars—are covered in shiny metallic foil and are arranged to form a grand altar with a throne at the center. It now resides at the Smithsonian and has been hailed as “America’s greatest work of visionary art.”

The notebook, titled St. James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation, remains a mystery. Professor Mark Stamp of San Jose State University and one of his students, Ethan Le, attempted to decipher the text, known as “Hamptonese,” to no avail; they scanned pages of the book and made them available online. Other than a few English words (like “REVELATION,” which appears at the bottom of each page), the notebook is filled with what seems like an eclectic mixture of random scribbles—but after transcribing the writing so that it could be put into a computer, Stamp and Le discovered that there was a definite pattern.

“Of course, there is a very real possibility that in spite of its language-like appearance, Hamptonese is simply the written equivalent of ‘speaking in tongues,’” they explained in a 2005 paper [PDF]. If so, then Hampton’s notes may still be impossible to read even if his unique language is eventually deciphered.

9. Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus

The imaginary language Luigi Serafini used to write his 1981 encyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus, is modeled on Western writing systems, but deliberately lacks meaning. The text accompanies surreal hand-drawn illustrations, such as a trio of surgeons in bizarre headgear dressing skeletons in human skin and psychedelic versions of fauna and flora. “What I want my alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand,” Serafini explained in a 2013 interview with WIRED. Attempts have been made to decipher the text, but the author maintains that “there is no meaning behind the script; it’s just a game.”

10. The Copiale Cipher

Unlike the other ciphers and codes on this list, the Copiale Cipher [PDF] was actually cracked in 2011 and a handy English translation is available [PDF]. Without that translation, though, the original is impossible to read: The 105-page manuscript, which dates to the mid-18th century, is written using 90 different characters, including Roman and Greek letters as well as abstract symbols [PDF]. Dr. Kevin Knight from the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California joined forces with Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer from Uppsala University in Sweden to decipher the text. With the aid of computers, they figured out that the original language was likely German. The Roman characters, rather than representing actual text, were stand-ins for spaces between the abstract symbols, which, when decoded, were actually words. The Cipher details the rituals of a German secret society called the Oculists, which feels fittingly mysterious.