Nov 14, 2006

Overrated books part 1.

This is probably the first and only time I'll write about literature as I scarcely read modern fiction. It's not that I'm some book snob, far from it actually, but most of my reading is spent on non-fiction. I do delight in some fiction though as Steinbeck has always been one of my favorites and most do make the claim that Hunter S Thompson is more fantasy than reality, of which I'd agree.

There is a phenomenon going on that was started by Dan Brown when his book 'The DaVinci Code' was published. Critics and readers praised the book to no end as a smart, engaging thriller. It's conspiracy theory became an institution unto itself as other authors released more literature about it. One browsing for the DaVinci Code could become easily confused as there were other books about the subject called Unlocking DaVinci's Code: Mystery or Conspiracy?, Cracking the DaVinci Code, and Exposing the DaVinci Code just to name a few.

I kind of felt I was missing out on the whole bandwagon and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I heard from most of my friends that I wouldn't like it as far as the prose was concerned, but the story was somewhat fun. Well they were right.

I read 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail', of which DaVinci Code is based on, as a young lad, probably too young to understand it, but found it rather dull. Still I picked up the DaVinci Code hoping for at least a 'smart, engaging thriller.' Well the book was hardly that smart, but it was somewhat entertaining.

The prose is simple, the pacing is annoying, and the characters are mostly uninteresting. The plot devices are less clever than the author (and sometimes audience) think, but it's engaging enough to keep you reading. While you may roll your eyes at the silly code breaking sequences and ludicrous theory it's still a fun romp. Any reasonably intelligent individual would see the answers to the puzzles a mile away and the big revelations are anything but surprising, but they'll keep reading to hopefully come across one that'll really challenge them.

As I read it I couldn't help but think why this book is such a huge success. I mean seriously it's not great nor is it even that good. Looking back at times when I would listen in on conversations about the book I find myself realizing exactly why people love it.

People love conspiracy theories and the book makes them feel smart.

The book is littered with all sorts of historical references, some of which are in tune with the story and some are, well, not. You find all sorts of tidbits of information, such as the real meaning behind giving someone bunny ears in a photo, and you feel like you've learned something. Even though the story is fiction the author outlines the material in such a way that you feel the references to ancient religions are true, although I believe most readers made no effort to look it up and confirm it.

I have a friend who actually believed the book's theory. Seriously he bought the idea that Jesus survived the crucifixion and has a bloodline that he started with Mary Magdalene. Although he made no effort to look up any of the references he accepted the idea and became an armchair expert in the field. Another friend who heard the theory before reading the book challenged my Catholic upbringing with this pearl of wisdom:

Him: Did you hear they found evidence of Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene?

Me: Yes I've heard about it.

Him: So isn't crap that the Catholic church doesn't allow priests to marry?

Me: Well since no one has found any evidence of either of the two even existing, much less procreating, I cry bullshit at anyone who believes in such a theory. Besides it's not like the Vatican is forcing people into the priesthood. People make choices. If you want to get married don't become a priest, monk, etc.

He looked away, paused for a long time, and said "yeah but..." which normally means he has nothing to counter with, but I guess he still feels compelled to crusade for a priest's right to matrimony.

Conspiracy theories are popular, because a lot of times they're easier to accept than the truth or even conventional wisdom. It can be simpler to digest the idea that the government was behind 9/11 than a bunch of fanatics carrying out a plot that beguiled our intelligence. By that same logic people will find it easier to believe that Christ was simply a man and not a divine being sent by a supreme intelligence. I can understand why the public will hold such theories as I am a fan of them myself, but to accept them as cardinal truth simply by reading grocery store fiction is just mind boggling. They succumb to be exactly like the people they look down upon which is those who accept scripture.

After finally finishing the book I do understand it's success. Books, like film, can live or die on their subject matter and marketing alone, quality be damned. That being said it's an easy, fun little read and if your expectations are low then you'll enjoy this novel.

No I haven't seen the movie yet.

"Though the book has apparently entertained about a quarter of the world’s population, it’s nothing more than a slim, overcomplicated premise supported by characters that are about as three-dimensional as the guests at Charles Grodin’s “party” in The Lonely Guy and dressed up in overheated prose that makes Dean Koontz look like Gore Vidal." - Jeremy C. Fox


Scott said...

As long as it is taken as entertainment it is just fine. There will be no Pulitzer in Dan Brown's future though.


Mattbear said...

"Holy Blood, Holy Grail" was actually presented as non-fiction, but was based solely on the word of a scam artist who actually created the Priory of Sion in the 1950s and claimed to be the head of it, and therefore a descendent of the Merovingians and Christ.

I did a little research on these topics after seeing the DaVinci Code movie and reading the book. I knew Brown, a hack novelist at best, didn't come up with these ideas on his own. The fact that some people believe this crap or lend any creedence to it at all should astound me, but I knew people who thought Blair Witch Project was real, too.

The movie is passable, but the book was attrocious. One of the few instances I have seen of the movie being better than the book. But with source material like that, it isn't hard to improve. By the end of the book, I swore if I read the phrase "sacred feminine" one more goddamn time, I was going to track down the author and kill him.

Wiwille said...

Scott - Yeah I doubt Dan will win any literature words soon, if ever.

Mattbear - Yeah I read that Holy Blood Holy Grail was based on the same premise; however ridiculous it might have been.

Reading the book for me was sort of like watching a James Bond film, with less interesting characters of course. Everything was so implausible it made for mildly entertaining pulp fiction. I'm just glad I went into it with way low expectations.