Thursday, June 22, 2006

DUST JACKETS: The Da Vinci Code

Just what the hell makes The Da Vinci Code such a successful book? Ever since Dan Brown’s religious conspiracy thriller was released in 2003, people have been asking this question. More importantly, publishers, agents and writers have been asking themselves the same… every one of them eager to duplicate this book's success.

Perhaps one of the book’s most irresistible qualities is how it resembles the granddaddy of all scavenger hunts. Each clue leads to the next, starting with the mysterious summons of religious symbology expert Robert Langdon to the scene of a murder at the Louvre in Paris.

Months before this book’s release, my wife got her hands on an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of The Da Vinci Code. A representative from Random House had visited the Barnes & Noble where my wife was working at the time, and proclaimed this book was going to be huge. Even with the success that did follow, I have to wonder if she really had a clue just how true her proclamation would be or if she was simply spouting a prepared load of promotional smoke up the arse of these booksellers. Nonetheless, my wife brought the ARC home, started reading and was instantly hooked. I recall working on the computer with my wife on the sofa next to me. Every few minutes, she would say something to the effect of, “Oh my God! You have got to read this book!” She would promptly follow this statement with the most irritating qualifier, “But you can’t yet, because I have to let someone else at the bookstore borrow it next.” That I didn’t smack my wife for this repeated offense of literary teasing still amazes me.

Months later, the book hit the bookstores for real, and I got my chance to read The Da Vinci Code. Despite being a slow reader, the story hooked me and damned hard, too. The writing style reminds me of James Patterson’s mysteries. We’re hit with mostly short chapters, ending in one twist after another, forcing the reader into the same conclusion with each scene’s cliffhanger, “I’ll just read one more chapter to see what happens next.” The result is a book quickly read. The pace doesn’t allow for much analysis of the writing, at least not on the first read.

At a writer’s conference, shortly after the release of this book, The Da Vinci Code found its way into discussion more than once. Many demanded of the speakers how a book that wasn’t all that well-written had successfully taken over the publishing world. Perhaps the answer that rang most true for me was by agent Miriam Goderich with the literary agency Dystel & Goderich. She said several of the staff members read the book and then sat down to discuss what they felt made this book work. All involved agreed that it wasn’t a well-written book. They also agreed that reading the book made the reader feel “smarter.” Certainly, the book cleverly inserts a vast amount of historical “secrets” that open up some great talking points for serious discussion.

I will come to Brown’s defense on the criticism of his writing. I don’t think the book is as poorly written as many tend to proclaim it. His writing is formulaic, though. That’s indicative of his chosen genre. Thrillers are meant to keep you turning the page from one cliffhanger to the next with descriptions typically drawn on more modern references as opposed to descriptions with a more timeless quality. Why? Because such references are quicker and easier for a reader to grasp. Brown can hardly be faulted for doing what so many others have proven works. He just makes an easy target because of his success.

The Da Vinci Code isn’t the first book to come along with some conspiracy theory related to religion. Thousands of other such books have come and gone with far less fanfare, so what is it about The Da Vinci Code that makes it stand out above the rest? I’ll discuss that in Saturday’s entry. Yes, this will be a first for my blog, a two-part “Dust Jacket.”

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