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The World According to Dan Brown (nytimes.com)
47 points by greifswalder on Sept 30, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

> he himself prefers literature that is instructive and, ideally, not wholly invented. “I feel like if I’m going to take time reading, I better be learning,”

The problem is that he chooses his "facts" for more interesting plots. He gaves interesting theories, facts and detailed descriptions, but you don't really know what is accepted knowledge or not. It is like getting your news from Fox, you spent so much time filtering it that it isn't worth.

BTW, I've just read Da Vinci Code for the first time after it was one of the few available books in a island after drowning my Kindle. I was impressed how a so successful book had such a poor narrative. His characters building were primary, and did some narrative tricks to deceive the reader. The conspiracy theory thing was the only interesting thing. No more Dan Brown for me. Better to stay with Humberto Eco.

> but you don't really know what is accepted knowledge or not

This is his primary problem. When he presents his "facts" he is often not presenting obscure but well established facts, but wide-eyed conspiracy theories that have been soundly refuted and are not taken seriously by legitimate historians or scientists.

If he bothered to do even a little research, and look for original historical sources, such as contemporary accounts or archaeological evidence to confirm what he has read in his fringe conspiracy books (in other words if he bothered reading well-researched and vetted books from credentialed historians), most of his "facts" would evaporate and he would lose his plot devices.

I don't really care that he uses this stuff to create a narrative. It's fiction, after all. But I have a real problem when he presents this crap as fact to an audience that lacks the discernment to know better. He is, in my opinion, intentionally misleading people, and making them more ignorant, to line his own pockets.

Does he present it as fact? The books are marked fiction, does he have additional responsibility beyond that? It is pretty easy to separate the non-fact/conspiracy garbage that he uses to drive the plot from the facts/history he uses to build setting.

> Does he present it as fact?

Yes. The book had an introductory page headlined "FACT:" that said "all descriptions of secret societies in this book are accurate", or words to that effect.

Yes. He has these capsules in his books in various places, separate from the story, where he calls out "facts" that are anything but.

I only read Da Vinci Code. To me it felt more like a propaganda piece for conspiracy theorists.

I have avoided reading it (and watching the movie), but I have read about it, and it's full of historical conspiracy theories. (I was actually surprised it makes no mention of the Oak Island Money Pit.) Many of the conspiracies are debunked in this documentary by Tony Robinson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAtoP5nFhh4

>I was impressed how a so successful book had such a poor narrative. His characters building were primary, and did some narrative tricks to deceive the reader. The conspiracy theory thing was the only interesting thing. No more Dan Brown for me. Better to stay with Humberto Eco.

I think most pop fiction books these days are written more as a script than a book, optimized more for being picked up by a TV a movie studio than for the reading experience. For that you need a good story, especially a conspiratorial one with a twist ending, but not great writing since the screenwriters will rewrite it again anyway. Melville, Hemingway, and Eco they are not.

I've never read Dan Brown. I do remember a friend reading The DaVinci Code and thinking the book was garbage. I have watched the movie Angels and Demons and thought it was ok, but nothing special. Now I stumble on a discussion of a bunch of software engineers discussing how much Dan Brown's books suck. Most of these people are as skeptical as you can be when it comes to matters of religion and faith, so it's not like they're hating on Dan Brown because of his choice in subject matter, the way one might accuse me (I'm a person of devout Christian faith). So honest question. Does Dan Brown really suck that much? If yes, why are his books so popular? It seems that either he's a good writer or he's managed to hit a nerve that people latch onto due to their own preconceived desires. If it's the latter, then does Dan Brown sell to his readers the way that President Trump sells to his base or Michael Bay sells Transformers movies to me? Donald Trump doesn't seem to have a clue what he's doing sometimes (I'm Canadian, so again, outsider perspective), but his base seems eat him up due to his message. Everyone says that the Transformers movies suck, but I just love watching big robots bashing each other so much that I can't tell if they're bad movies; the movies seemed fine to me. Is Dan Brown in this category? Or is it possible that all of these learned and analytical people in this discussion are wrong and he's actually a good writer?

Also in the category of "generally regarded as objectively bad yet also immensely popular," see junk food.

Junk food is not engineered to leave you feeling satisfied--in fact, it's quite the opposite. Junk food is designed to give you a brief and fleeting pleasure only for as long as it is in your mouth, and then leave you feeling empty and unsatisfied afterward--that's why "you can't eat just one," and people will eat through an entire bag of potato chips and still want another bag. It is momentary, fleeting pleasure--and the fact that it leaves you feeling unsatisfied is exactly the thing that makes it addictive.

I'd compare Dan Brown's books to addictive junk food: the act of consuming it is unsatisfying, and that's a feature, not a bug. The page you're reading isn't satisfying, but he does a great job of creating this sense of anticipation that, on the next page, some amazing mystery is about to be unraveled. They're "page-turners:" you don't really get a ton of satisfaction from the page you're currently reading, but you want so badly to see what is on the next page that you speed through the page, usually reading quickly enough that you don't really notice how unsatisfying it is.

If you ask people why they find it impossible to put Dan Brown's books down, you'll always get some answer indicating this, like "I just had to see what would happen next!" This is also why many people read "page-turners" like Dan Brown's in a single sitting: each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. There's no logical stopping points, because the "effectiveness" of each page is predicated on the anticipation of the page that follows.

I read the Da Vinci Code when it came out, and just didn't find the narrative to hold together. The logic was bad, there were gaping plot holes, unbelievable story lines, etc. It has been too many years to recall the details, but I do recall my overall impression being that he just wasn't a very intelligent author, and I couldn't muster up enough suspension of disbelief to enjoy it.

That being said, I do know intelligent people who enjoy his work, and his books and movies have been successes, so I don't take my own bad impressions of his work too seriously - I'm clearly in the minority. So if other people enjoy his work, I'm not going to come down on him or them because of it all. To each their own.

> Mr. Brown, 53, spent four years writing and researching the book. He is nothing if not disciplined. He rises at 4 a.m. each day and prepares a smoothie comprising “blueberries, spinach, banana, coconut water, chia seeds, hemp seeds and … what’s the other kind of seed?” he asked. “Flax seeds, and this sort of weird protein powder made out of peas.” He also makes so-called bulletproof coffee, with butter and coconut oil, which he says changes “the way your brain processes the caffeine” so as to sharpen your mind. His computer is programmed to freeze for 60 seconds each hour, during which time Mr. Brown performs push-ups, situps and anything else he needs to do. Though he stops writing at noon, it’s hard for him to get the stories out of his head. “It’s madness,” he said of his characters. “They talk to you all day.”

From "The Role of Deliberate Practice" https://www.gwern.net/docs/1993-ericsson-deliberatepractice....), Ericsson 1993:

> The best data on sustained intellectual activity comes from financially independent authors. While completing a novel famous authors tend to write only for 4 hr during the morning, leaving the rest of the day for rest and recuperation (Cowley, M. (Ed.). (1959). _Writers at work: The Paris review interviews_.]; [Plimpton, G. (Ed.). (1977). _Writers at work: The Paris review. Interviews, second series_.]. Hence successful authors, who can control their work habits and are motivated to optimize their productivity, limit their most important intellectual activity to a fixed daily amount when working on projects requiring long periods of time to complete...Biographies report that famous scientists such as Charles Darwin, (Erasmus Darwin, 1888), Pavlov (Babkin, 1949), Hans Selye (Selye, 1964), and B.F. Skinner (Skinner, 1983) adhered to a rigid daily schedule where the first major activity of each morning involved writing for a couple of hours. In a large questionnaire study of science and engineering faculty, Kellogg (1986) found that writing on articles occurred most frequently before lunch and that limiting writing sessions to a duration of 1-2 hr was related to higher reported productivity...In this regard, it is particularly interesting to examine the way in which famous authors allocate their time. These authors often retreat when they are ready to write a book and make writing their sole purpose. Almost without exception, they tend to schedule 3-4 hr of writing every morning and to spend the rest of the day on walking, correspondence, napping, and other less demanding activities (Cowley, 1959; Plimpton, 1977).

I can really only get 3-4 hours of coding done a day without needing to recharge. I’d love if I could just get to work at 7, code until lunch and then go home, read a book, etc.

I've been pondering about how to get something like this set up for myself. I think it's what makes remote work most appealing to me. If I'm out of the office environment, there isn't a concern about "butt in chair" time, and I can work purely around productivity.

Sometimes I am at my desk and I can tell that I'm not going to get anything done for the next two hours, not because I'm in meetings, but because my brain is kaput. There's no reason for me to pretend to work. If it's 2:30, and I'm out of coding capacity, I could probably recharge with 1-2 hours of relaxation and rest, but that kind of thing isn't encouraged in an office. I'm supposed to work when I'm there. It's idiotic.

Kazuo Ishiguro on writing _The Remains of the Day_ (my favorite): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/06/kazuo-ishiguro...

> So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

Philip Pullman: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/magazine/philip-pullman-r...

> Every day from roughly 10 until 1, Pullman sits at his desk in a monkish study at the top of the house and produces three pages, longhand. He has written three pages a day ever since he started writing. Habit, he is fond of saying, has written far more books than talent. The ritual is sacred. As is the space. “Nobody’s photographed this, and nobody will ever photograph this,” he told me, both fierce and faintly amused by the severity of his own rule. “I’m superstitious about that, very superstitious about that.”

The original book that Dan Brown plagiated (Holy Blood, Holy Grail) is so much better. I have read it few years prior to DaVinci Code and could only recomend.


Brown wrote one book about the space business, “Deception Point”. IIRC, the plot was that a couple of aerospace companies had faked a meteorite with fossils in it, in order to leverage a huge increase in the space industry from Congress.

He made the mistake of naming the companies involved in the conspiracy. These were companies that, in the book, were powerful enough to buy off Senators, pay massive bribes, and leverage incredibly advanced technologies. He named three, and they weren't who you might expect (Boeing, LockMart, Northrop-Grumman) - they were from the original generation of “new space” companies.

When I read the novel, I had worked with two of the three companies. One had gone bankrupt five years after the novel was published. The other had, as I recall, three employees.

No more Dan Brown for me.

I have read a couple of his books and enjoyed them. Not favorite reads, but worthwhile. On he other hand, I love the movies with Tom Hanks playing Professor Langdon. When Dan Brown now writes, I wonder if he pictures Tom Hanks in his mind when write writes the Langdon character.

> Of his novels, he said: “This is the kind of fiction I would read if I read fiction.”

Well that explains a lot.

I thought Garth Marenghi was the only author who has written more books than he has read.

Yes, these are the kind of references I’m into.

What a lovely show.

For what it's worth, Cormac McCarthy hasn't read much fiction in a long time (so he says), but his books are some of the best in the second half of the 20th century.

Well I'll be damned. Although he hasn't actually written a novel in a long time either. Also, maybe if he did read a novel he might realise why quotation marks exist.

Also, to be fair to Dan Brown, I read the entirety of The DaVinci Code and actually enjoyed myself quite a lot.

I have never read a Dan Brown book (yes, really). Is he the type of writer who focuses on the plot rather than the literary merit of the words and sentences he writes?

Here's something the British author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) said in a 2013 TV interview that I've always remembered:

"Yes, there is a difference [between a storyteller and a writer]...For a storyteller, it's the events that are more important than anything else, the events in the story, how they fit together, how they unfold...plot is a very important thing for me.

But for a writer, I suppose words and sentences are the important things and plot is of less importance. Really, of course, they should be of the same importance." [1]

Is Dan Brown a storyteller rather than a writer? (If one goes with Pullman's distinction)?


This[0] is a good sample of what Dan Brown's writing feels like.


I don't think anyone would accuse Dan Brown of being a very fancy writer, but in my experience, most people who hate his work actually hate it for the stories. Dan Brown's stories seem to have the same problem as rushed newspaper articles — they seem clever and interesting when you know nothing about the topic, but if you have a passing familiarity with any of the facts of the story, it becomes painfully obvious that the author is bullshitting their way through gigantic holes in their knowledge of the world.

Dan Brown's novels have shitty plots too. They're all like warmed-over, direct-to-SyFy action thrillers from the 90s, replete with car chases and the like. Not to mention total ass-pulls: his main character for the past few novels is a professor of "symbology", which is totally not a real field.

Being a "writer" is not about the "literary merit of words and sentences". That's a bit like saying being a "programmer" is about the "programmatic merit of the variables and functions".

Dan Brown ain't a good storyteller either. But his stuff does sell, so some people must like it.

Yes. The prose is execrable.

I made the mistake of reading Digital Fortress at some point. The entire plot is predicated on the existence of a computer at the NSA that can defeat any encryption through brute force without even knowing the underlying encryption scheme. You give it ciphertext it outputs plaintext. Not satisfied with how ludicrous that is, as in it can be proven impossible by anyone with even a passing familiarity with what encryption is, he also goes into all these actual numbers like it can break 2k long keys in under a second so even using much larger keys it's only a few minutes. Completely ignoring the fact that key spaces grow exponentially with key size and instead assuming it's linear... This is all in the first couple chapters so I'm not even spoiling anything

Researched his books are not... At least that one wasn't, because if he'd consulted even a first year CS student they could've told him it's all wrong.

That whole experience turned me off of Dan Brown books (even though I had previously read Angels and Demons and enjoyed it, knowing his research was so shit in areas I'm knowledgeable in makes it harder to read books about things I'm not because I know I will be coming away with wrong ideas stuck in my head)

A MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose.


Never read the book so not sure how integral the technical details are to the plot. But this sounds like it could be excused as a mere plot device or by appealing to the Suspension of Disbelief.

I agree it would probably be wiser narratively and aesthetically to let our hero, the Cryptographical Expert, gloss over the technical details and just say to the pushy Head Bureacrat at some point early in the novel something like, "I could try to explain this to you but I don't fully understand it myself."

The less pardonable offense where Dan Brown's writing is concerned, both in my limited experience and as others in this thread have pointed out, is the lousy writing.

Dan Brown does a lot of "research", but it is not what we would consider to be research. He is interested in the world of conspiracy theories, in which NSA is a large subject. This is the common thread going through all of his books.

In German we have two words for research.

"Recherche" which is what journalists and authors do, to find information for Articles and Stories.


"Forschung" which is what scientists do with experiments.

I often have the feeling English speaking people like to play with the fact that these things are called the same in English.

It is sad and says a lot that in our society journalists, who are responsible for delivering information to the masses, fall in he first category not the latter.

The part that made me put that book down was when he listed a bunch of encryption schemes and one of them was ZIP.

The paragraph in question:

> Now Susan was even more doubtful. Encryption algorithms were just mathematical formulas, recipes for scrambling text into code. Mathematicians and programmers created new algorithms every day. There were hundreds of them on the market-PGP, Diffie-Hellman, ZIP, IDEA, El Gamal. TRANSLTR broke all of their codes every day, no problem. To TRANSLTR all codes looked identical, regardless of which algorithm wrote them.

Thanks for finding this. Once you read a bizarre sentence like that, you begin to suspect that the level of research Brown puts into subjects which you may know less about, such as religious history, to be similarly dismal. I doubt these kinds of books are even a little bit instructive as the article makes out. Rather they leave you knowing less about the world than you did before you started.

However, I couldn't help but read a bit further, where the Achilles Heel of TRANSLTR is identified - 'rotating clear text':

> The notion of a rotating cleartext function was first put forth in an obscure, 1987 paper by a Hungarian mathematician, Josef Harne. Because brute-force computers broke codes by examining cleartext for identifiable word patterns, Harne proposed an encryption algorithm that, in addition to encrypting, shifted decrypted cleartext over a time variant. In theory, the perpetual mutation would ensure that the attacking computer would never locate recognizable word patterns and thus never know when it had found the proper key. The concept was somewhat like the idea of colonizing Mars-fathomable on an intellectual level, but, at present, well beyond human ability.

Of course, neither Harne nor the notion of 'rotating clear text' actually exist!

> Of course, neither Harne nor the notion of 'rotating clear text' actually exist!

Brown's work is full of ass pulls like this. Much of the plot of the book hinges on the "Bergofsky principle", which is, roughly, that "any crypto can be cracked". It's one of those nonce names thrown in to add scientific gravitas -- like "Tannhauser gate". But of course not only was there no Bergofsky and no such principle, but the opposite is the case in our current understanding of cryptographic math: there are some ciphers such as the one time pad which are, in principle, totally uncrackable. (They are also extremely cumbersome to use, and their cumbersomeness makes them prone to attack in other ways, so we make do with "uncrackable for all intents and purposes given current-era hardware").

Of course, when I first read about Satoshi Nakamoto I giggled a bit and thought of Ensei Tankado...

It can probably break ONETIMEPAD, too.

He lost me at the whole Bible code thing. The plot was just too riddled with deus ex, and that is just no fun.

One of his other books opens with a few pages on how anti-matter is the solution to the world's energy crisis due to the amount of energy stored inside it. Totally ignoring the efficiency issues of producing it in the first place.

I'm fine with there being an explicit deviation from reality. "Angels and Demons" has one, spending a few paragraphs about how it explicitly broke conservation of energy. I'm fine with that, as it fits with the theological overtones of the book as a whole.

It's everything else that makes no sense whatsoever.

* A single lone researcher getting beam time on the LHC, without anybody knowing what the experiment was doing. I don't care how brilliant a person is, you're not doing experiments at that scale without having it be approved ahead of time.

* Perfect antimatter containment in large quantities. There's going to be some leakage, resulting in detectable gamma rays.

* Portable antimatter containment. Penning traps require large magnetic and electric fields, not exactly conducive to transportation.

* Countdown on a storage device with no safety margin. I can understand having a countdown to the engineered safe period. I cannot understand having the storage device shut off at exactly that time, rather than continuing to use whatever power it has.

* Inability to track wireless cameras. There is a camera pointed at the hidden antimatter containment device, and no attempt is ever made to track the signal from that camera.

* Failure to use binary search. (This is the only one that doesn't occur within the plot's setup, so avoiding giving spoilers.)

The book meta_AU is talking about is Angels and Demons, and while it doesn't explicitly state that it would solve all the world's energy issues it heavily implies it.

Is this Dan Brown the ski jumper? Everybody knows he never jumped more than 20 meters. Why the fuck should I listen this guy?

Anyone who at this point in time writes about the Sagrada Familia CATHEDRAL should be banned from reporting or intervieweing.

Sorry but this only proves sloppiness.


Eh. Yes, it's a bit sloppy but although "cathedral" has a specific meaning it's also widely applied to large churches/abbeys/etc. that aren't associated with a bishop.

Why? I think if you said the Sagrada Familia minor basilica [0] people who don't already know about it might not know what that means. I certainly wouldn't. According to Wikipedia [0], it's only not a cathedral because it's not the seat of a bishop.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagrada_Família

> According to Wikipedia [0], it's only not a cathedral because it's not the seat of a bishop.

On one hand, I do agree with your major point; calling it something other than a cathedral would be needlessly distracting. On the other, your comment amounts to "it’s only not a cathedral because it’s not a cathedral." Being the seat of a bishop is what a cathedral is.

>Being the seat of a bishop is what a cathedral is.

It's what cathedral's etymology is.

Words are defined by how they're used, not their etymology. Most people just use the word to mean any large church.

In fact, from dictionary.com: (2) (in nonepiscopal denominations) any of various important churches.

Also: Following the Protestant Reformation, the Christian church in several parts of Western Europe, such as Scotland, the Netherlands, certain Swiss Cantons and parts of Germany, adopted a Presbyterian polity that did away with bishops altogether. Where ancient cathedral buildings in these lands are still in use for congregational worship, they generally retain the title and dignity of "cathedral", maintaining and developing distinct cathedral functions, but void of hierarchical supremacy.

The term "cathedral" actually carries no implication as to the size or ornateness of the building. Nevertheless, most cathedrals are particularly impressive edifices. Thus, the term "cathedral" is often applied colloquially to any large and impressive church, regardless of whether it functions as a cathedral, such as the Crystal Cathedral in California or the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø, Norway.

> It's what cathedral's etymology is. Words are defined by how they're used, not their etymology.

Sure, but we're talking a Catholic church here, and for Catholics, it's not just the etymology—it's the currently used definition as well.

Let me guess, you live in an area where most people are catholic? I'd bet that most protestants have never heard of that particular definition. Of course the reporter should still have gotten it right, but it's easy to see why it's less obvious to some people than others.

Not only they might have not heard that, but they also use the word with another, looser, definition.

This seems totally irrelevant to the essay.

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