By William Urban

I listened to The Lost Symbol (Audiobook from the Warren County Library) largely out of curiosity, to see if having an editor would help Dan Brown write better.  Nope. He still cannot pass up an unnecessary adjective, his dialogue is breathlessly wooden, and he uses words ending in –ly far too often. Occasionally adverbs are necessary or useful (see previous sentence for how to use one with an adjective in a way that might initially seem as contrived as any of Brown’s plots, but which makes sense in context).  Almost every good author warns against overusing adverbs, most importantly Mark Twain, but Dan Brown seems to have read almost everything except advice on how to write well.

Not too many years ago when I had students in London, Venice and Rome, I took them to the sites associated with the Da Vinci Code. Standing at any place mentioned in the thriller (it’s not quite a novel, because novels usually have some character development), it was easy to see how much he relied on readers not knowing the geography of the cities that his figures raced through looking for clues. (It’s easier to yell “That way” when looking at a map than when trying to make your way through a maze of meandering streets.)

It’s the same in The Lost Symbol. Who really cares if one main scene takes place north or south of central DC? Every character in the book is amazed to learn that what they see every day in the nation’s capital is only part of a gigantic puzzle giving clues to a great secret that has to be kept out of public view. (No, I do not mean the workings of Congress.)

            The two main characters, Robert Langdon, and Katherine Solomon , are experts in esoteric studies that nobody else cares about: 1) Symbolism, which Langdon uses to teach students that whatever they have learned from parents is juvenile nonsense; 2) Noetics, the study of lost knowledge that supposedly underlies every idea and practice in modern society. (Example: when Luther visited Rome, he thought the papacy was more pagan than Christian; Dan Brown says that Roman Catholicism itself is pagan.) Nine years earlier, in the Da Vinci Code, Langdon rescued the beautiful descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene from a crazed monk, but apparently the week they agreed to spend in Florence together didn’t work out — she vanished from his life, as one would expect of any sensible woman who had to listen to him prattle on about Symbolism for seven days. He still has a magnificent physique, a laser-sharp mind, and a propensity to be astounded by every turn of the plot. Ms. Solomon is unfailingly described as beautiful, brilliant, and rich, but reacts to every crisis with a combination of panic, irrational demands, and dumb questions — habits that better explain why at age fifty she is still unmarried than her interest in weighing dying people to determine the mass of their souls. They are, in short, made for each other.

            At inappropriate moments they stop to exchange insights about obscure cultures and religious beliefs, then chuckle (Brown’s characters chuckle a lot) before remembering that a powerful tattooed man is chasing them; and off they go, knowing that if this lunatic doesn’t catch them, the CIA will. What’s it all about? Neither of them knows, though everyone who is given a glimpse of the hidden secret goes pale, then cooperates in trying to keep it hidden until mankind is ready to accept it.

            Judging by the millions of people who bought the book (#1 on the NY Times best-seller list for weeks), the public is willing to accept the idea that Christianity and all other religions are perverted shadows of early wisdom that has been lost to ambition, greed and superstition. Only the Masons hold the key to this wisdom — and they guard it carefully, warning initiates repeatedly that death awaits those who betray their secrets.

            Now, a good deal of this mumbo-jumbo has a slim basis in fact, but the reality is as meaningless today as are his supposed revelations. Masons, despite having been so feared in 1828 that a political party sprang up to remove all their members from public office, may worry about being photographed wearing funny hats and aprons, but that would be to avoid the public thinking they were members of Ralph Kramden’s Raccoon Lodge, not because they would be denounced as participants in a satanic ritual. Fortunately for us, the concept of a masonic conspiracy had not appeared by 1787, much less prevailed, because many of our Founding Fathers would have been kicked out of the Philadelphia Convention, and Dan Brown would have had to look for something else to write about.

            The Masonic Conspiracy Theory reappeared in the 1870s, led by former Knox College president, Jonathan Blanchard. However, the idea that masons went around murdering people eventually succumbed to a lack of bodies; it revived in the 1980s when a financial scandal at the Vatican revealed the existence of a masonic lodge there, P2, and suspicions arose that masons were eliminating possible witnesses to the embezzlement. An anecdote of the time had the pope asking, “Is everyone here a mason?” The purported response was, “No, not everyone.”

            In short, the world is a stranger place that we imagine. Next week: more analysis of how Dan Brown has benefited from that, and the connection of ideas in the Lost Symbol to Christmas.


            Review Atlas (Dec 16, 2010), 4.



By William Urban

Last week I wrote that The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown was one of the worst written books to ever make the #1 Best Seller list. This week I offer my reflections on why that happened.

I left off with an unproven assertion that the world was stranger than we often imagine. Since Dan Brown repeatedly asserts that very thought, one might well imagine that I would agree with much of what he has to say. Indeed, I might have if Robert Langdon was not so much like the precocious child mentioned prominently in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Little List, eager to lay you flat with obscure knowledge, and so smug about it. I have to confess that not since reading David Copperfield, when Mr. Macawber thwarted the evil plans of Uriah Heep, was I so happy as when Robert Langdon was water-boarded.  

It was refreshing to have a bald, muscular, tattooed eunuch doing the waterboarding, not the CIA, but the pleasure was spoiled by a suspicious that the author would come up with some implausible way to bring Langdon back from the dead. The tattooed demi-zombie was also unlikely to infuriate any ethnic group except perhaps bikers, who have better things to do than protest pseudo-science fiction. Besides, bald bikers wear bandanas.

            Dan Brown brilliantly lines up ideas that have been circulating in popular culture for generations: arcane knowledge, secret societies, out-of-body experiences, mistrust of organized religion, and most importantly, mind over matter. He is a genius at throwing out darts of information, knowing that some will strike a memory and persuade the reader that this is indeed the real stuff. He is a Claude Levi-Strauss for listeners of the Coast-to-Coast radio network — fun, but too closely associated with the “aliens have a space station at the north pole” crowd to be taken seriously.

            Sports fans know that tens of thousands of minds concentrating on the outcome of a game doesn’t alter the laws of physics, but the belief persists that meditation can do so. I remember a visit to Iowa when I was told that it can reduce crime in Chicago and Detroit and even change the weather, and, most famously, that members can learn to fly. (It wasn’t a wasted trip: the Indian restaurant was really good.) Another time I was told about a group of Georgia professors who sat around a table and tried to get cubes of ice to melt, then boil. “Any success?” I asked. “No,” I was told, “but they got the water to room temperature.” Astral projection is another idea, used a century ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs to get his fictional hero, John Carter, to Mars, where the gravity was so weak that Carter would have the strength and agility of Tarzan.

            Obviously, I am not a likely convert to Symbology or Noetics. Worse, I read Dan Brown’s books because of a perverse interest in how to make millions out of half-truths, improbable characters and bad dialogue. Learning in this thriller that the Ancients understood how to employ their minds to control matter, and that the possession of the magic word (actually the symbol) could be translated into total power over mankind and the universe, I had to marvel how the “suspension of disbelief” — an essential aspect of any kind of literature, but most importantly fiction — worked so effectively. Brown repeatedly assures us that his alternative realities were proven facts (note the correct use of an adverb), then assures us that Noetics will eliminate atheism and superstition. University professors will be as dumbfounded at learning that they have wasted their time studying physics; they should have become Symbolists.

            It is dangerous to criticize the ideas in any Dan Brown thriller because he takes so many of them from popular culture that almost any group of ordinary Americans will find at least one of them plausible. Moreover, criticism won’t do much good: we have become so adept at separating our enjoyment of fiction from reality that most readers really don’t care much what he says, as long as the pages keep turning. After all, we accept singing dwarfs, tiny fairies, and green ogres. Why not bald, tattooed super-humans? Maybe Dan Brown was right, that people don’t want to think about what their religion, their politics, or their architectural treasures mean.

            I do. Hence, my lesson for the Christmas season: Dan Brown argued that the knowledge of the ancients will, once revealed and accepted, will make Man into God; Christians believe that in Bethlehem God became Man.


Review Atlas (Dec 23, 2010), 4.