The other day a student asked if I intended to read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I took a moment to recall the opening of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway repeats his father’s advice to “reserve all judgments.”
Then I said, “No way. Not a chance.”
I ought to reserve judgment—particularly of books I haven’t read and particularly with students who benefit from any reading—but, when it comes to Dan Brown, I can’t help having an opinion. When I read The Da Vinci Code a few years ago, I hated it so much that I stopped reading with five pages to go. I could have stopped on the fifth page but wanted to hate it from a position of strength. I needed a way to express my contempt more vividly.
If you love Dan Brown, I sincerely apologize.
I think you should stop reading now.
As an English teacher, I see books as my business and generally celebrate anyone appreciating any book. In the past, I’ve had colleagues who’ve rejected some of the novels we teach as second rate, but, for me, a book students like is a good book. I keep my misgivings about The Lord of the Flies to myself. I bite my lip when students praise Of Mice and Men because I assume they sense something I’m too jaded to see. I’ve never wanted to be the sort of snob who thinks we should teach Crime and Punishment instead of The Joy Luck Club because everyone knows that anyone who has a brain recognizes that Dostoyevsky is the better writer.
I generally don’t like hating books. Though I listen patiently and recognize every citizen’s right to complain, I barely tolerate students who want to tell me (usually over and over and over) how little they enjoy the book I assigned them. The fault, I say inwardly, may be the reader’s and not the writer’s. Every book, I tell myself, offers something redeeming for the person who searches for it.
So why single out poor Dan Brown?
My wife finds it odd that I can muster such hatred toward so innocuous a figure. It is a little like hating white bread. I find my hatred odd too. I state reasons—the amateurish way characters discuss clues as they flee from gunfire bugs me, as do the barely differentiated characters discussing these clues… endlessly, in tediously informative baby-step bits. I’ve taught eighth graders who write more engaging dialogue, and the telling-heavy, showing-short chapters always, always, always end in cheesy and/or clumsy cliffhangers.
None of these objections, however, account for my hatred. I sometimes play literary activist and say it’s a crime better writers go unpublished. That’s certainly true, but worse writers are published too. It’s occurred to me that, though I don’t author accounts of century-old global religious conspiracies couched as thrillers, maybe my hatred is jealousy.
When people who love Dan Brown chide me for spoiling their fun, I do feel guilty. What’s wrong with a little jigsaw solving—even if it is a puzzle of finite, identically shaped pieces? My hatred is irrational, and, being a rational man, I know the cure. I should buy The Lost Symbol, strap myself to a chair and read it, cover to cover. While I’m at it, I’ll read Twilight and all those other novels everyone else talks about too.
But I can already feel a biological fireball gathering in my lizard brain. Please, oh Lord, don’t ever let me meet Mr. Brown. I’ll be nice, but I might have to keep my hand over my mouth to arrest the sneer overcoming me.
Which—I know, I know—is not my best expression.