Umberto Eco

We Need to Talk About Dan

If you’re a writer, critic or just a general cultural pundit, there are certain literary truths that you must accept… or else.  Joyce was the greatest writer of the 20th century.  Postmodernism isn’t stupid, it’s just that billions of people don’t get it.  Rhyming poetry died with the dinosaurs.

And Dan Brown in history’s worst writer.  He makes Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James look, respectively, like Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Since Classically Educated makes no pretense of being anything but unabashedly elitist, I suppose one would expect us join the choir in denouncing Brown’s crimes against literature.  One would be wrong.  We’re here to say reasonably nice things about his books.

Ah, I hear people say, a guilty pleasure.  Er, no.  Elitists don’t do guilt.  We do pleasure and leave the guilt to the hand-wringing middle classes and insecure academics.  I’m not looking to be forgiven for enjoying the Robert Langdon novels, but to try to analyze why I (and a lot of other people) enjoy them, despite the criticism of the limitations of the writing – which, to be fair, are pretty reasonable.  There is a bit of lazy writing in there.

So, having recently read two of his more recent Langdon novels, The Lost Symbol and Inferno, I thought it was time to bite the bullet and discuss why I’m still reading these.

For starters, I’ll tell you about my introduction to Dan Brown.  Like everyone else on the planet, my first contact with him came through The Da Vinci Code.  I had badly miscalculated the number of books I needed to take with me on a trip to the Middle East in 2005 and found myself flying back to Argentina via Spain with precisely zero things to read.  The one book that every single bookstore in the world–even in Spain–had on hand at that time was Brown’s, in English, in mass market paperback.  I picked it up with some trepidation.

I was immediately hooked, read the thing without stopping (and made demonic at the nice people whose attempts to give me airplane food were interrupting my reading) and put it down wanting more.  I don’t remember exactly, but I probably bought Angels and Demons immediately after the jet lag wore off.

Not once did I stop to criticize the prose.  Stuff which, if discovered in my own writing would have made me blanche and question my right to continue living flew right by.


Your mileage may vary, but I think it was two things.

The first factor is an old cliché: pacing and suspense (yes, I know they’re two different things, but they work best when they work together).  Simply stated, these novels keep you turning the pages because you want to know what happens next.  Will the characters make it, what is the solution to this or that riddle, etc.  There are things that keep you hooked both emotionally and intellectually.

Even better, is the fact that the pacing doesn’t bore you or make you wait.  It gives the solution within a few pages, but by the time you have it, Brown has introduced another question or risk or riddle for you to agonize over.  He does this extremely deftly, which ensures that absolutely no one (except perhaps a critic paid to look pretentious) is thinking about the man’s prose.

The second factor is the spectacular use of every conspiracy theory known to man.  Brown does his research on them.  Like the people trying to convince us that aliens have already landed and are in control, he uses just enough evidence to make a convincing, seemingly watertight, case, and leaves the deeper research–the stuff that puts the rest in context and makes it much less sinister–out.  So his books have whatever it is that attracts humans to conspiracy theories.

Umberto Eco famously said that Dan Brown was one of his characters.  He was, of course, referring to Casaubon in Foucalt’s Pendulum.  We’ve spoken glowingly about that book here, mainly because all good elitists are either skeptics when it comes to conspiracy theories or members of the Illuminati pretending to be skeptics.

What he meant by that was that Brown seems to have read all the same books that Eco did, but Brown took them seriously while Eco has them in his famous collection of fakes and lies.  He did clarify later that Brown was only using the same material for a different purpose and that he, Eco, had no evidence that Brown was a believer, but the glee he showed when throwing out the initial phrase means that we’ll take it as the true meaning.

I will postulate that Brown doesn’t use the old writings as a true believer does, but uses them as a good writer does – with the bottom line in mind.  Cynicism aside for a second, the bottom line in this case isn’t money (OK it isn’t only money) but readability and page-turningness.  In the case of his first two books, he realized that people love to read about dark plots within and around the Catholic Church and the New Testament.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

For The Last Symbol, he spread his wings a bit and went after the Freemasons, which had the added benefit that he was able to set his novel in Washington DC, a place as rich in symbolism as any renaissance town – remember that Langdon solves these things in large part by interpreting symbols.

Inferno Dan Brown

After that, he asked himself “What group of conspiracy theorists am I missing?” and decided to write Inferno, set it in Florence (another good choice) and write about a guy developing a super-germ to wipe out humanity.  Also, he makes a brave choice with the ending…  something that shows that story, to him, is more important than just printing unlimited amounts of money.

I still haven’t read Origin, but, so far, and to his everlasting credit, Brown has resisted the temptation to complete his conspiracy bingo card by adding aliens to the mix.  There’s only so much we can defend here after all.

In the end, the books are widely read because of their strengths, not despite their weaknesses.  In this context the weaknesses (aka uninspired writing), to a reader, become invisible.  The story takes over and pulls you along, not accepting any excuses.

There.  A critical apologism of Dan Brown and a call for his work to be appreciated.  For my next trick, I may need to find arguments to show that  Hitler was actually a perfectly nice guy if you got to know him or that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was well-intended but got a little out of hand.

Nah, that sounds like a lot of work; I’ll probably just do another movie review.  Everyone likes those.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 200 stories published in seven languages (mostly in English).  His latest novel, Incursion, sets new standards in throwing characters under the bus.  His characters start the book thinking they’re on a suicide mission… and then it gets worse.



The Classics Made Pretty

What is a book lover?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people who enjoy books. For some, the love of books has to do with their collectibility: tracking down an inscribed first edition of a forgotten work is more of a rush than winning the lottery (although winning the lottery might allow larger purchases of collectible books).  Condition is paramount with this kind of book lover, and they probably will never read their new acquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who only care about what a book actually says.  They’re fine with reading on their kindle or, if they utterly hate screen reading, a used-bookstore-bargain-bin paperback.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.  Physical books have an appeal that transcends mere content.  The edition, and yes, even the cover illustration, is often interwoven with the image that the book conjures in our mind years after the fact.

Also, there are some books that we just know we’ll read again and again, and that having a decent copy will make our lives easier in the long run.  Anyone who’s ever read the densely-packed type of a 1970s paperback will likely understand why I’m looking for a decent edition of Rebecca to replace the one I bought in a used bookstore bargain bin.

So today, I wanted to do a roundup of three books that I reread recently because I purchased new, better editions of them.  All three of the new editions are of that type that look impressive on a shelf but, more importantly, all three will last much longer than the cheap mass market paperbacks they supplanted.

On this occasion, I will be talking about the edition and not the content; they are three well-documented classics which need no further critical examination from me (not that that’s ever stopped me before…).

These three books represent three very different approaches to premium bookmaking (note that none of them costs more than about $40, so “premium” is a relative term).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The first, The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov is one of the B&N leatherbound classics series, although I have serious doubts about whether that is real leather on the covers.  Looks more like plastic to me, although it does a decent impression of it on the shelf.

The main pro to this one is clearly the price and easy availability.  I picked it up off of a shelf at a B&N in the US.  No mail, no hassle.  The cons are that, though much sturdier than your average hardcover, and containing a ribbon bookmark, it pales a bit beside the more beautiful options around.  Still, I’m delighted to have this one in my collection.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson

Our next volume is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Though the Easton Press seems to have discontinued the edition I have and replaced it with an even better (albeit much, much more expensive) one, you can still buy copies of the one I refer to very easily online.

Now this one is definitely leather-bound, and the edition looks handmade.  It has illustrations, and the paper seems to be something created for connoisseurs (in fact, it is archival-quality paper, so there may be something in that).  It is a truly beautiful book meant to last and to look classy on a bookshelf.  The wide spacing of the type also makes it a pleasure to read, so double goodness.

Cons?  Well, from a practical point of view, you don’t really need a big hardback of this book.  A 25,000 word novella is essentially fine in paperback form, and the large format of this one does seem like overkill.  If you’re buying books only for the content,  you will want to give this one a miss.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

The last one we’re looking at today is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the beautiful Folio Society Edition.  It seems to have gone out of print, but here’s a nice one for a good price.

If anything – and despite the lack of leather – this edition is even more lush than the Easton Press book above.  The paper is of a beautiful light cream, and the title page tells you everything you might need to know:  the type of font, kind of paper, materials and even where the paper was milled.  It has a slipcase as well.

And if you’re looking for content?  Well, in this case, the edition is justified as well.  There’s no justification for reading The Name of the Rose in a cheap paperback edition.  This is a book to be savored, enjoyed, and reflected upon, no one that should leave ink marks from cheap printing on your hands.

And if you’re reading a book whose introduction says “Naturally, a manuscript” on a Kindle… well, then you are just a philistine and have obviously reached Classically Educated by mistake while searching for pictures of Etruscans having sex.

For the rest of you, the best of the three is the Eco… but those Easton Press editions sure look nice… and for $20, the three Asimov books in paperback would cost you more than the nice edition.  So pick your poison.

The Only Conspiracy Theory Book You Need to Read

Foucalt's Pendulum

I was once told by someone extremely wise that the best thing about Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose, is that it didn’t disappear up its own arsehole like so many of his other books.  He’s Irish, so the extra “r” and “e” are his, but he is also a critically acclaimed writer, so it’s necessary to keep his opinion in mind.

Since I actually thought that TNOTR is brilliant on many levels apart from the anatomical, so I proceeded to purchase Foucault’s Pendulum, and place it in my TBR file, where it gathered dust for some time before I finally cracked it open.  And then I couldn’t put it down.

Does it disappear into dark cavities?  Well, yes, I have to admit that it does, a bit.

Is it worth it?  Yes.  You see, the intricate texture of the book, the way it weaves together everything Eco could find on different pseudo-Christian secret societies in history is hugely fascinating, although once Eco starts doing his completist thing, it’s easy to understand why the sheer volume of info can turn people off to the book.  But not me – and, I suspect, not anyone who loves learning about history’s strange little nooks and crannies.

It is, essentially a conspiracy theory book, a kind of Da Vinci Code for deeper thinkers and skeptics (disclaimer: I enjoyed the Dan Brown book, so please feel free to dismiss anything I may say from here on out!), except it seems to take into consideration ALL of the theories that state that there is “more than meets the eye” with regards to where the world’s ultimate power – or at least that in the western world – lies.  It shows you what kind of theories could be born if the regular theorists were also extremely good at research, as opposed to the more feeble-minded exponents that make up the majority of the group.

I have always thought that conspiracy theorists were a bit deluded at best.  At worst, they seem to be the kind of people who can’t bear to face that, when they fail, it is their own fault, and not that of some shadowy power.  If they are powerless, it is because power, riches and glory generally go hand-in-hand with both talent, perseverance and hard work.

Eco seems to share these feelings, but he has a genuine affection for humanity’s weaknesses that comes through in his text, and it is this which makes the deeply-flawed characters in his book come to life.  Yes, everyone in here is a caricature, more an idea than an actual human, but they are ideas that represent the perfect initial conditions for the ultimate in conspiracy theories.  And while the characters are parts of humans, they are extremely human.  We see many of our own hopes, fears and desires painted on the canvas of his good guys and bad guys.

Eco's Cosmic Joke

This book is clearly a Cosmic joke on Eco’s part.  He is certainly poking gentle fun at the kind of people who will twist history and science with a foregone pseudo-scientific conclusion in mind, but one feels that he isn’t necessarily laughing cruelly at them, but more ribbing them affectionately for their own human foibles, but in a way that only a scholarly genius could possibly pull off.

We should also stop to mention that the whole thing is one long series of cultural and literary allusions.  Anyone even slightly widely-read will enjoy the satisfaction of spotting the little nuggets tossed in, almost carelessly, to give the book texture.  The most amazing thing is that the pockets of knowledge break up what is, in essence, a huge speculative history lesson.

And, of course, any book that tosses in an offhand reference to Finnegan’s Wake, while assuming the reader has read and understood it gets major kudos in my book – for sardonic irony if nothing else.

This one is a delight to read.


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