Music Features

I've Not Read The Da Vinci Code But...

I've not read The Da Vinci Code, nor do I intend to. Strangely, I keep having to apologise for this, something I've never experienced with favourite books of mine that other people haven't read. I've never felt this pressure before, but almost every social occasion I find myself at seems to include me offering a mea culpa for my Brownian failure. An assumption seems to be at work: he reads books; TDVC is a book; therefore he should read it. I don't attempt to explain myself, I simply apologise. As my interlocutors continue with their harangue, they give reasons for me to undertake this micropaedic task: it's a page-turner; and it makes you think. Normally I nod and make affirmative grimaces.

A common criticism brandished against "intellectual thrillers" - I read it once in a review of our titular subject - and indeed many "intellectual" books, including the likes of Paul Auster, is that such works sell in such large quantities as they are successfully engendered to make stupid people feel clever. But it's not stupid people who are recommending Brown's work to me; they are very typical readers, educated folk of the Waterstonesy, manager's-choice type. What is more curious is that these are readers astute and experienced enough to point out, of course, that it's absolutely terribly written. Generally I respond that I've got enough books to read without having to add an unnecessary crap one. They say, but it's a page-turner, it'll only take someone like you a few hours. I explain (I apologise) that I'm actually quite a slow reader. This normally infuriates the person who is persuading me of the value of Mr Brown's work. But it makes you think, don't you want to question things, don't you want to open your mind? At this stage, an anecdote will be put forward, for example that of a friend, a Christian, whose faith was shaken by the notion of Jesus having children. Interesting, I say, before trying quite hard to change the subject.

I have no objection to page-turners or badly written books, in the abstract; they have to exist, simply by comparison; just as capitalism, as Marx observed, creates riches and poverty at a stroke, so too does lit. crit. create well-written and badly-written books in one swoop. What I find more objectionable (although generally I'm too shy to say so) is the argument that TDVC should be read because it might make me think. This reminds me very strongly of a neat little trick that the political right has pulled in the States. Recently, President Bush has been arguing that Intelligent Design, or ID (a sneaky re-branding of good ol' fashion Creationism whose promotion has been funded by Fundamentalists and shady tax-breaks), should be taught alongside Darwin's theory of evolution, and that students should subsequently be allowed to make up their own minds. That this dual indoctrination will make them think. Intellectually, this is the equivalent of promoting flat-earth theory and Newtonian physics as being equally valid.

Why is this analogy relevant to Brown's work? His books begin with a statement of "facts". Recently, scholars and experts have, with little real effort, demonstrated that many of these statements of fact are based on hoaxes and shams. Such lack of rigour is part of a strategy of creating unsubstantiated or fictional debates; unlike other purveyors of superficially factual literary detective work - I am thinking of Borges, of course - Brown offers rewards in the real world, as his reader is offered the feeling of a historical mystery solved. But of course this mystery is in fact fiction. His trope is perhaps ingenious, perhaps disingenuous. What TDVC adopts, very successfully, is the right wing's quasi post-structuralist notion of an attack on privileged or academic knowledge. Like Blair's sincerity (I believed I was right, even if I have now been proved wrong, the belief is what counts), false debate, in which it doesn't matter whether the factual content is valid or not and that simply the act of debating is what counts, puts emotions before or brains. It is as if discussing Quidditch tactics were considered a worthwhile exercise of one's faculties: the intellectual equivalent of what someone once called wanking yourself off in the dark. Ultimately, saying that it's worth reading Dan Brown because it makes you think reveals the dangers of relativism, and of the difficulty that people have stating clearly that some things are bad or wrong. Debating whether Jesus had children or not, whether there is a bloodline, is pointless compared to a genuine argument over the role of religion, in particular fundamentalism or religious dabbling in politics, and its potentially nefarious influence in society.

So instead of Mr Brown, how about some modern intellectual page-turners that make you think and are well written; try J.G. Ballard's Cocaine Nights, Saramago's Blindness, Money by Martin Amis, or García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping. Next time I'm at a party, I'm going to force someone to apologise for not reading one of these.