“Intelligibility Porn”


I tried to show some restraint. But it is now 11:59pm Eastern time, and The Rumpus, an ostensibly bookish website, still has not marked, observed, or otherwise commented on today’s release of The Lost Symbol, the new book by Dan Brown. This deserves a post simply as a cultural phenomenon, and it appears that I’ll have to be the one to do it.

To be fair, The Lost Symbol‘s release can’t measure up to readers crowding New York’s piers, waiting for the final installment of a Dickens novel. Still, two things merit a mention. First, Random House’s security measures. These include allowing only six employees to read the complete manuscript; preparing 10,000 non-disclosure agreements to accompany the 5 million first-run books; and sending librarians a letter asking them to keep it under “lock and key.” Amazon apparently looked to Cold War cinema for inspiration in its precautions: the online behemoth stored its books in a chain-link enclosure with 24-hour security and two locks requiring two separate keys kept by two separate people.

While we’re on the subject of Amazon, let’s note that The Lost Symbol has perched comfortably on its “Top 100” list for the past 149 days. And this brings us to today’s second important item–the sales. Around the globe, retailers are reporting that Brown’s book is the “fastest-selling adult novel ever.” (As the New York Times astutely notes, this implies that J. K. Rowling will hang on to her “fastest-selling period” crown.) Mass culture is too fickle a mistress for The Lost Symbol to match The Da Vinci Code and its 81 million sold since 2003. But it looks like the new novel will do just fine.

I realize that I still haven’t talked about the book. I don’t plan to read it, though I did read The Da Vinci Code. (Honestly, I don’t see how one can claim to care about contemporary reading, writing, and culture without at least flipping through it–it’s a low-brow barometer.) But one of the best takes on Brown belongs to New York‘s Sam Anderson. (And not just because he did a nice interview with The Rumpus.)

Anderson admits that Brown’s corpus is “implausible, inaccurate, horrifically written, saddled with comically mechanical love plots, et cetera ad infinitum.” But he goes on to argue that

the power of Dan Brown is very simple: He exists entirely to make us feel smart. He is devoted to reader empowerment like Keats was devoted to euphony. . . . The Da Vinci Code is intelligibility porn: You get the satisfaction of understanding, over and over, without any of the real-world effort.

I especially like Anderson’s concluding point–that cheap-shotting Brown has “exactly the same degree of difficulty as solving his clues and puzzles, and offers similar pleasures. Superfans and detractors are united in this: They leave the books feeling equally smart.” Also worth noting (and sighing over) is the sidebar to Anderson’s essay, which lists “Ten Works That Have Sold as Well as The Da Vinci Code–Combined.”

Finally, here’s an excerpt from The Lost Symbol–no key required.

Craig Fehrman is a grad student and writer living in New Haven. You can find more of his work here. More from this author →