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Given that this is a blog about books, it would be hard to let this week pass without mentioning Dan Brown. Purely in terms of commercial success, the release of his new thriller has been a historic event: the biggest release in the history of the book trade to date. It’s an understatement to say that a hell of a lot of people are going to read The Lost Symbol. Likewise, a significant number of people are going to roll their eyes in despair and wish they could avoid it entirely.
Me, I’ve not read it and I doubt I ever will. I haven’t read any of the others. I haven’t even read Harry Potter. I saw the film of The Da Vinci Code and couldn’t understand why a conspiracy theory about a sex scandal in the first century relied, for its principal source, on a fifteenth century painting. But I still think Dan Brown is brilliant. I’d back what he’s doing to the hilt, because he’s giving his readership a badly needed dose of mystery.
These superbooks, these enormous releases we’ve seen in the last few years, never fail to astonish me with their staggering appeal. Do they find their way into so many people’s lives simply because of the marketing blitzkriegs that precede them, or because they touch a nerve of some kind? Are they things of substance or just carefully formulated escapism? I nearly managed to involve myself in the buzz around one of these mass appeal books when the last Harry Potter book came out. I was going to go and queue in the street, experience the zeitgeist first hand. I had my shoes and coat on, ready to go to the midnight opening, but then it started to rain. I chickened out and stayed indoors.
I love that word: escapism. I’ve heard people use it with such incredible contempt. Escapism seems to be regarded not far above porn in the spectrum of literary merit. Escapism is derided as something for the weak-willed. It’s too deliberate an indulgence. It doesn’t sit easily in a rational, heavily secularised society. People blush to admit that they’re ‘just reading some good old-fashioned escapism’. Yet I think it’s worth more than that.
Dan Brown’s much-read works of escapism recast our world into one steeped in mystery. Ditto Harry Potter, ditto (more recently) Twilight. And there seems to be an incredible appetite for such things: for things we don’t readily understand, things that dodge logic and common sense, or simply go bump in the night. This is the reason why I like the oldest of fairy tales, from way back when before the moralists got their hands on them. They assert that the world is mysterious, and that anybody who tells you otherwise is likely to end up as wolf-meat. I’m not too interested in reading the particular forays into mystery mentioned above, simply because I’m not a big fan of the package of familiar symbols through which these books deliver that mystery (cults, vampires, orphan wizards), but that’s just personal taste.
So I can’t comment on whether the books have good plots, bad characters, or any of that stuff, but I still think it’s exciting that there’s such a buzz over a books like these at all. Mystery is the stuff that life is made of, be it the uncertainty of first love or the strange vacancies left by bereavement. Thank goodness then, that these big books ignore the taboos surrounding it. I tip my hat to Mr. Brown.