For some years, my father made a habit of using me as a tame book reviewer. For a Christmas present he'd give me a book that he'd heard some buzz about, but wasn't convinced enough to invest his own time in. Then, based on my verdict, he'd decide whether or not to add it to his own reading list.
The process introduced me to some splendid books. I first encountered Philip Pullman and Iain Pears that way. But it was, as you'd expect, hit and miss: there were some serious turkeys in the Christmas mix.
So it was that one year, on my way to New Zealand for my then-annual New Year visit, I found myself saddled with an exceptionally bad 500-page hardback potboiler. I forget what it was - it had ghosts, I remember - but I didn't feel like carrying it home, so I 'regifted' it to my now-brother-in-law, whom we'll call Ben.
This Christmas, Ben got his revenge.
Dan Brown's most recent opus, The Lost Symbol, is a book so bad that I feel the need to recalibrate the bottom end of my scale. This undigested ramble around subjects that the author either doesn't begin to understand or, worse, simply chooses to misrepresent, runs to some 700 pages in paperback. (It could have been done in 300, tops, and it would still have been atrocious but less repetitive. Presumably Brown's publisher specified a wordcount.) Warning just in case you're planning to read this tosh for yourself: from this point on, I will be spoiling like milk in the sun.
Summary: a mysterious villain believes that 'ancient wisdom' guarded by the Freemasons would enable him to become a god, and sets out to force our hero to uncover the Masons' deepest secret.
Spoiler: it's a bible. Yes, that's right - the unspeakable secret that billionaire Freemasons are prepared to lay down their own, their families', and each others' lives to protect - is the most readily-available book in the Western world. If only our villain had thought to check in his hotel drawer, we could all have been spared this whole tedious taradiddle.
And if you think that's silly, just wait until you find out why the CIA is involved.
Along the way, we get introduced to the wonderful world of 'noetic science'. 'Noetics' - loosely speaking, Greek for 'bullshit' - is a label invented in the 1970s to make new-age mysticism sound scientific. In Brown's hands, it becomes a top-secret research institute that has conclusively proved the existence of multiple gods, the power of prayer, the weight of the soul and the length of a piece of string, through rigorous scientific experimental processes that are too dull to be explained even in this interminable pile of filler.
(Some of Brown's fans claim that the details are omitted because they're too technical. But based on the available evidence, it seems more likely that Brown simply neither knows nor cares what a 'scientific experiment' is.)
Science, then, is treated with a level of contempt seldom found outside a Bible Belt school board. It would be nice to report that Brown's other strand, mysticism, fares better. But here again, the author clearly despises his subject as much as his audience.
The hero spends much time lambasting others for taking metaphors literally. Yet Brown himself is agonisingly literal-minded. The idea of 'ancient wisdom' here becomes 'the Ancient Mysteries' - some sort of cosmic cheat sheet, well known to The Ancients, that can transform him who understands it into a god. (After all, when was the last time you left home without dropping a quick libation to Pythagoras?) And when Jesus says 'The works that I do shall [ye] do also; and greater works than these shall [ye] do', in Brown's world this means that we can all cure cancer by wishing hard enough. The mundane fact that proper science (as opposed to 'noetics') now routinely heals the sick, makes the lame to walk and the blind to see on a scale undreamt-of in Jesus' day - doesn't seem to have dawned on him.
I remember, as a teenager, talking ideas like these through with my schoolfriends and fellow students. And I don't believe my circle of friends was particularly elevated. In Dan Brown's world, these sophomoric meanderings become profound wisdom to be uncovered, to much gasping, by the most intellectual elite of the Ivy League.
Maybe Brown was stoned while he wrote. That would explain the prose style, but it's not much of an excuse.