Friday, May 28, 2004

I like to touch books

If you know me, you know what I mean. If you don't, fear not, your eyebrows will descend soon enough. I've often seriously considered going into the publishing biz. is my porn. I spend hours upon hours (not to mention many dollars) jumping from book to book. It's an almost unmatched way to increase your awareness of what intellectual currents are on the rise. You also hear the responses of "real people."

Liking books as I do -- sometimes, I must admit with shame, to the point of idolatry -- I now and then follow the best sellers and latest "literary phenomena." Case in point: Dan Brown's orgiastically celebrated The Da Vinci Code (DVC). Suffice it to say, Brown's book is one of those rare books accurately called a runaway bestseller. It's so popular in fact, it's popularity is self-perpetuating. As we learned with the approach of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, commercial and media controversy can usurp the objective merits of a piece of entertainment and generate more praise or scorn than a work would have ever otherwise received. DVC is fast becoming a social meme, a glitzy sign of the times. At this point, many people are paying more for the allure of being seen with the book than for the book itself.

Of course, paying more for the allure of owning DVC than for the book's merits isn't too tall a feat. There really isn't much middle ground to stand on with DVC. People either love it or they hate it. Those that love it, even if in the attenuated, modern sense of "love," defend the book as "thought-provoking," "well researched," "entertaining," "convincing," "intriguing," "believable," and the like. The sad fact of the matter, however, is that the book is, both from an academic and a literary perspective, none of those things. As one writer put it, the plot is a clunky pretense for Brown to pontificate, via his polymath protagonist, about, well, whatever Brown would like to hear himself say. People rush from location to location -- and then talk and talk and talk for pages about pseudo-intellectual "what if?" stories.

More than this, the book does aim, despite Brown's veneer of matter-of-fact scholarship, to be controversial. Brown repeatedly follows facts beyond where they take us, more than once even turning his back on them completely in his adoration of the long-repressed "sacred feminine." Brown pulls few punches about the supposedly dominant political and financial agenda of the Catholic Church in inventing doctrines. For example, according to Brown, the deity of Christ was "invented" in AD 325 at the Council of Nicea for political and mysoginistic reasons. Yes. Sure. Indeed. And Al Gore invented the Internet there too.

This isn't simply a matter of Brown picking on the Catholic Church. Numerous Evangelical Protestant authors have also critiqued DVC. I read on one blog that, in Brown's defense, he wasn't trying to start an "anti-Catholic revolution." Relax, O uptight Bible thumper. It's just a book; it's just good fiction; it just makes you think. If only that were the case. If only DVC were indeed just one thing or another. But the problem is that Brown himself is shifty about the nature of his book. Is it "just a good yarn" or is it "just the facts"? Brown is hard-pressed to give a straight answer. In one interview, he'll tout DVC as a work of first-rate, cutting-edge scholarship. Then, in another setting, he'll backpedal a bit and wonder why oh why "some people" are getting so worked up about a clearly fictional novel. But Brown should be kind enough to realize his book is a clearly fictional novel, and should be called that. As it stands, it's a market soup sandwich, an intellectual hermaphrodite. Hence, I suppose, its popularity.

Now, let me admit unabashedly from the outset: No, I have not read the book. I've wanted to get a copy, but I guess my timing's been off at the few English book stores here in Taichung. With this fatal secret out in the open let me pose a well known question to catch the other shoe before it drops: "How can you hate Brussels sprouts if you've never tried them?" You can't judge a book by its cover -- or its public reception. Right? Well, no actually, that's wrong.

This so-called "Brussels sprout fallacy" is off the mark for two reasons. First, we can and do judge books by their covers all the time. Any serious bibliophile will, like Agatha Christie's unassuming Hercule Poirot, be able to tell more about a book by glancing at it than some people get from reading the whole thing. Author, publisher, cover art, reviewers and their review excerpts, quality of paper, font size and several other details all tell a tale even many casual book buyers can understand. Would you really be confused about the difference in quality and content by looking at the artsy, matte cover of a Vintage International book in one hand and a pulpy mass-print Ballantine sci fi book in the other? You don't touch Vintage if you want sci fi; and you don't touch Ballantine if you want ex-patriot Canadian gay literature. No, you don't judge a book completely by its cover, but you do use it as a guideline. The same can be said about DVC. We judge -- size up -- items all the time on the basis of public reception. Most kids know they hate Brussels sprouts because every other kid hates them, regardless what ma and grandpa say every night at dinner. (It doesn't help the matter that children's taste buds are more sensitive than adults' and seniors', since then every ounce of bitter ruffaginess stands out like a potato chip shard in your throat.)

Keep in mind I'm not relying solely on the public's commercial reception of DVC -- otherwise I'd have snapped up a copy like everyone else and stayed with the this year's literary in-crowd. This is not a popular decision for me; it's an intellectual dispute. I've read a fair amount of focused, academic critiques of DVC, from numerous authors of different backgrounds, to realize history and logic deeply undercut the paper-thin respectability of DVC. This, then, is the second reason the Brussels sprout fallacy is wrong: unless you're a vegan, books are not exactly like vegetables. Vegetables don't make historical and theological claims about the world. Books do (or, at least, people do so in them). As a kid I might have been wrong about Brussels sprouts (now, in fact, one of my favorite foods), but I was definitely not wrong there were three bowls of porridge before Goldie Locks. If vegetables could be analyzed like books -- with criteria for texture, ease of digestion, nutrition, the layering of flavors, etc. -- then I would have a chance to accept or reject Brussels sprouts before my first bite. Unlike vegetables, you can tastes books before reading them. DVC can be, and has been, analyzed by competent critics and it has been found wanting. I've read enough from DVC to know it has infinitely less going for it than Brussels sprouts. Once I do get around to reading it, I'll be well prepared to take it with a healthy sprinkle of salt.

I've joined in the anti-DVC campaign for two reasons. First, blatant historical and theological errors bug me, greatly. I'm a bit of an intellectual, so, despite my own admitted errors and blind spots, the facts matter to me, greatly. Popular efforts to use (and abuse) history and Christian theology deserve to be lambasted apart from any religious aims. There are intellectual standards I think even our decadent society needs to honor.

Second, I know firsthand that DVC is damaging the faith of many Christians. Certainly, facing challenges to our faith is healthy for Christians. But I, like many others, refuse to face them lying down. I don't know if it's more depressing or more absurd that DVC is actually the basis for some Christians turning tail on Christ and His Church. But we must stem the tide of popular heresy; we must speak the truth in love.

Let me leave you with a few links to illustrate what I mean about DVC, to put it bluntly, getting its ass handed to it.


"Breaking The Da Vinci Code"

So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real.

By Collin Hansen | posted 11/07/2003


Part 1 of Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel's lengthy rebuttal in Envoy Magazine.


Part 2 of the Envoy rebuttal.


A briefer critique by Brian Onken from the Christian Research Institute.


An entire online symposium of numerous book-length critiques of DVC!


[from Aug. 3 New York Times -- EBB]

Does 'The Da Vinci Code' Crack Leonardo?


[Bruce Boucher is the (presumably non-Christian) curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of ``Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time.'' -- EBB]

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