Gary Jansen is the author of the ebook The Infernos of Dante and Dan Brown: A Visitor's Guide to Hell ($3.06, Tarcher)
Dan Brown may be one of the most important writers living today.
At first blush this statement may sound like hyperbole. Certainly, academics and scholars would think I'm off my rocker, and would cite a recent Nobel Prize-winning author as leagues above the popular thriller novelist of such books as The Da Vinci Code and Inferno.
Critics too, while probably conceding that Brown knows how to spin a good yarn, would point out a number of historical inaccuracies in his novels that blur the line between fact and fiction (Truth be told, there will always be factual errors in sweeping historical novels. If anyone took the time, errors could probably be found in great works like Ben Hur and The Agony and the Ecstasy). Yet, what Brown does in a way that appeals to millions of people around the world (his books have sold collectively over 200 million copies in 52 languages) is tell stories that remind us there's more to the world than meets the eye.
His books--filled with history, intrigue, secret codes, and symbols embedded in paintings, books, churches, monuments, and government buildings--suggest that the things we take for granted are imbued with hidden meaning. A painting may not just be a painting, Brown suggests, and the façade on a building may be more than a simple decoration. Yet, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, many of us, at least consciously, don't normally look beyond the surface of the world around us. Now, you might be asking: So what? What difference does it make? Why should I care?
Maybe you shouldn't. Granted, exploring the symbolism hidden in a piece of architecture might not help you pay the bills, but in a society where poetry, myth, religion, and philosophy are becoming more and more obsolete; where 1 in 10 Americans takes medication for depression; where more people are foregoing human, three-dimensional, face-to-face interaction for one-dimensional, electronic substitutes like Facebook and Twitter; and where people are still asking, What's the point of life?, maybe we should care.
In any event, when an author sells as many copies of his novels as Brown does it is safe to say that his writings have an influence on society at large. So here are nine reasons why Dan Brown is one of the most important authors alive today.
Spotlight on Dante: T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third." Now, while most people are somewhat familiar with the works of William Shakespeare, many people have never read the works the 14th century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Brown's latest novel, Inferno, inspired by the first part of the Dante's Divine Comedy (a three-part epic through hell, purgatory and heaven) will introduce millions around the world to one of the most important writers that ever lived (and one who continues to influence everything from movies ("Se7en" starring Brad Pitt) to music (Green Day's "Christian's Inferno").
Cultural Literacy: Brown's narratives, laced with science, history, art and geography, have helped bring awareness to such diverse figures, concepts, and locations as Leonardo Da Vinci, Jesus, anti-matter, the esotericism of Manly P. Hall, the Vatican, the Louvre, Noetic Science, Freemasonry, and the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Dante's latest novel, Inferno, will once again spark reader's imagination and thoughts around such notables as the Medicis, Michelangelo, and Thomas Malthus. All of this isn't just fodder for small talk at parties; it actually makes us more informed.
Sparks the Economy: According to The New York Times, publishers' net revenues in 2012 were $15 billion, up from $14 billion in 2011. That's a sizeable chunk of change. As already mentioned, Brown's books sell in the millions, and that means more traffic in bookstores and online outlets. And as any retailer will tell you, once you have someone in a store or searching for something on a website, they are more likely to buy what they are looking for as well as something else. This is all good news, not just for bookstores across the country, but America's economy as well.
Great for Tourism: From Rome and Vatican City (Angels and Demons) to Paris (The Da Vinci Code) to Washington, D.C. (The Lost Symbol) to Florence, Venice and Istanbul (Inferno), Brown sets his books in the some of the most beautiful and intriguing cities in the world. This is great news for the tourist trade. After their subsequent publications, a number of travel tours as well as guidebooks for Brown's The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol sprouted up in France and the U.S. Certainly, the same will happen for Inferno in the months to come. And Italy could sure use your travel money to help bolster its struggling economy.
Global Awareness: A central motif in Brown's latest Inferno is overpopulation. While scientists, scholars and politicians debate the severity of its effects on the food chain, on the limited supply of fresh water and the threat of war when there aren't enough natural resources to go around, overpopulation is a subject that more often than not takes a back seat to stories about Kim Kardashian's maternity clothes or the next celebrity diet. Brown's exploration of the subject will likely bring the issue to the forefront of public consciousness.
Symbolic Reminder: Symbols are at the heart of every Dan Brown book. Now, unlike signs which primarily just provide us with information, symbols invoke emotional responses. Whether it's a religious icon, a favorite baseballs team insignia, or a country's flag, symbols appeal to an ineffable part of us. Noted historian Heinrich Zimmer once wrote, "Concepts and words are symbols, just as visions, rituals, and images are; so too are the manners and customs of daily life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored." In other words, symbols allude to an essential truth that exists beyond us. Forego them and we close the door to what makes us human. "It is difficult to get the news from poems," poet William Carlos Williams wrote, "yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." The same can be said for the symbolic.
Reinvigorates the Debate between Faith and Reason: At the heart of every Dan Brown book is the tension between the seen and the unseen, between materialism and spirituality, between science and religion. This is a good thing! Tension is what holds up most bridges. In the days before someone could post an anonymous, kamikaze slam against someone the internet and then disappear, debate was a way of figuring out what people believed and why. Brown told a story at his recent launch event at Lincoln Center where a priest came up to him and told him that he distained his novel The Da Vinci Code, but wanted to thank him at the same time because it made more people in his church talk about God than ever before. By and by, the more that people respectfully communicate, the more they realize that they are usually talking about the same thing but using different words.
Inspiration for Aspiring Writers: Dan Brown wasn't always a successful novelist. Born in New Hampshire in 1964, he struggled as a musician in Hollywood in the early 1990's and eventually returned to his home town and became a school teacher. He wrote during his spare time, published his first book in 1998 and triumphed with The Da Vinci Code five years later. He serves as both a success story and a source of inspiration for myriad weekend novelists and is one of the chief writers today who gives hope and succor to the high school English teacher working on his or her novel after grading all those papers.
Makes Publishing Exciting: Compared to motion pictures, book publishing can sometimes be the nerdy first-born who doesn't get the attention her younger, bombastic, sibling gets. Every week dozens and dozens of new and exhilarating books go on-sale across the country, from thrillers to literary fiction to narrative histories to cookbooks and self-help manuals. Of course, most books don't have the same fanfare surrounding their release as an "Iron Man 3" or the new Superman movie. That is, unless you're Dan Brown. Few authors kick off their book tour with a talk at Lincoln Center to over 2,000 attendees (and more watching on closed circuit television), but that's what the author of Inferno did this past May. All of this puts publishing in the spotlight, and it's a good reminder to all of us to log off of Facebook and Twitter every once in a while and lose ourselves in a good book.