Dan Brown Wraps Themes about Books and Publishing into All his Books—Especially Inferno

In his novel Inferno, Dan Brown makes numerous references to the state of book publishing. Despite his personal success as one of the bestselling novelists of all time, he is clearly concerned about the future of the book.

In Inferno, Brown makes several references to contemporary pop culture and to the handful of authors who have had publishing successes similar to his. In the scene where Langdon is pleading with his editor, Jonas Faukman (a character based on Brown’s real life editor, Jason Kaufman) to procure a NetJet for him, Faukman is reluctant to go to the expense needed to do this favor for Langdon. “If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography, we can talk,” Faukman tells Langdon, making a word salad sentence out of Langdon’s alleged expertise in iconography as a symbologist and a reference to the Fifty Shades of Gray phenomenon (books of erotica that dominated the bestseller lists in between Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol and Inferno).

As he thinks over whether he is going to be helpful to Langdon or not, Faukman recalls the fact that Langdon missed his last deadline by three years. This is an allusion to The Lost Symbol (TLS), which was widely expected to appear in 2006-7 after Dan Brown’s great success with The Da Vinci Code in 2003. TLS was not actually published until 2009, despite frequent rumors that it would be published in each of the years in between.

Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the other books in his trilogy) also placed highly on the global bestseller lists in the years between TLS and Inferno. Brown may be paying homage to the Larsson books with the character of Vayentha whose spiked hair and motorcycle posture are reminiscent of Lisbeth Salander, Larsson’s girl with the dragon tattoo.

Brown also references e-publishing and e-books. An important plot device for Langdon’s theories about Dante is a flashback to a lecture the fictional professor had given at the Societa Dante Alighieri in Vienna. In a packed 2,000 seat hall, Langdon explains the culture and context of Dante’s life and times. At one point, “after listing the vast array of famous composers, artists, and authors who had created works based on Dante’s epic poem,” Langdon asks the audience how many of them are authors. When a third of the hands go up, Langdon thinks to himself: “Wow, either this is the most accomplished audience on earth, or this e-publishing thing is really taking off.”

In interviews, Brown has described Inferno as his first story in which Langdon’s cultural treasure hunt mainly involves a literary work. The visual arts have provided more of the cultural clues in the prior books–examples being Leonardo’s Last Supper in Da Vinci Code (DVC), Bernini’s sculptures in Angels & Demons (A&D), and Durer’s Melencolia I in TLS. But in fact all Brown’s books are about books as much as they are about anything else. DVC brought the Gnostic gospels to the attention of many readers for the first time, including referencing important real books, like Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels’ book, The Gnostic Gospels. Brown drew on many real books that had never received much public interest prior to 2003 when DVC called attention to them. Indeed, his use of other authors’ books even triggered a completely baseless but nevertheless prominent UK “plagiarism” suit brought against Brown by some of those associated with the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. His thanks for giving publicity to this book and even naming DVC character Leigh Teabing based on an anagram of one of the book’s principal authors, was a lawsuit that tested whether a fiction writer was entitled to adapt ideas and theories found in a non-fiction book, or whether non-fiction authors had some kind of copyrightable control over not just their words but their ideas. Brown prevailed handily in the case.

Angels & Demons, written before Brown really hit his stride with Da Vinci Code, has a fictional book by Galileo as the McGuffin. The Lost Symbol emphasizes Freemasonry’s love of books. It treats the Library of Congress in Washington, DC as a temple to the book, which it is. Langdon and Katherine Solomon actually come to personify books as they escape from the Library of Congress by means of the book conveyor belt. Throughout TLS, the characters are in a hunt to track down and understand the occult secrets known as the “ancient mysteries.” In the end, this will turn out to be Dan Brown’s metaphor for the wisdom of the ages, including the Judeo-Christian Bible, but also including all the other works from ancient societies to modern science.

Toward the end of TLS, there is a long meditation on the importance of the book as a container of wisdom: “Books. Every culture on earth had its own sacred book….” This discussion continues with the wise Dean Galloway contemplating the words from his Masonic Bible: “Time is a river…and books are boats. Many volumes start down that stream, only to be wrecked and lost beyond recall in its sands. Only a few, a very few, endure the testings of time and live to bless the ages following.”

Clearly, Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of those. Whether Dan Brown’s books will stand that test of time is another matter altogether.

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