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Schneier's Applied Cryptography is a very readable introduction.

If you want to get into the actual mathematics of it, then it is considerably more difficult. Luckily for me I took courses in pure math, RSA and some hashing functions at university, so I had to learn it :-)

As others have said, crypto is properly hard and it's very easy to make cock-ups. So unless you're prepared to do the years of work becoming a proper researcher, don't try and design any algorithms yourself (for fun is ok, but not for real world use).

Applied Cryptography is readable but not particularly instructive and occasionally misleading. It's not a good book on crypto. I'm not the only one who says this; Schneier himself alludes to it.

A better book is _Practical Cryptography_, now called _Cryptography Engineering_, which Schneier also co-authored.

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