Review: The Lost Symbol

Buy this book at Amazon.comYeah, I know. Dan Brown is the crappiest and trendiest of all crappy trendiness, and I ought to be ashamed to admit that I even picked the book up and looked at it.

If you, like 10 billion other people on the planet, read The Da Vinci Code, you won’t be surprised to learn that his latest book, six years in the making, is every bit as awful – and yet captivating. A friend of mine pointed out that one of the secrets to Dan Brown’s success as a writer is that he makes stupid people feel smart, by telling them all this great stuff; and he makes smart people feel smart, because they get to pick apart his writing, his factual errors, and his lack of originality. Everybody wins.

My friend’s favorite example in The Lost Symbol is a character who is killed early on, and is completely forgotten by the end of the book. That character was forced to give up her access code to the villain, a four-digit code that, she reveals, is actually… her birthday.

Now, she’s working – for the elegant and brilliant love interest – on a top-secret research project in a top-secret location, having signed reams of nondisclosure agreements, yet she was permitted to create a pass code from her birthday? She’s supposed to be a computer genius. The plot doesn’t hinge on this pass code, but that’s the kind of thing that drives me wild, even more than the overuse of italics. I gave up early on Angels and Demons because – okay, so they had this incredibly dangerous substance, perhaps the most dangerous substance in the universe. And it had basically one layer of security on it, once a person was inside the CERN campus – a retinal scan. Not even a frickin’ password. And the villain, naturally, rips out the eyeball of the idiot scientist (who hadn’t even put a padlock on the door) and uses that to gain entry, even though a retinal scan will not work with a dead eyeball. I had already been irritated by numerous other things in the opening chapters, but at that point I threw the book across the room.

I originally stopped reading The Lost Symbol, too, at an early chapter that opens with a man tattooing his own scalp. Immediately I was thrown out of the narrative flow (such as it was). How was he accomplishing this? Was he using mirrors? Doing it blind? And what exactly was he inking in? We are told that his entire body is tattooed, except for a circle at the top of his head. Was he now filling in this circle? Darkening some color that had faded? What the hell was he doing?

I was tempted to throw the book across the room then, but somehow soldiered on. Bad writing, factual errors, plot holes, flat and puppetlike characters who are supposed to be of genius-level intelligence unless the action requires them to be incredibly stupid – these are the hallmarks of a Dan Brown novel, just as much as the secret societies, the “symbology,” and the brushes with mysticism.

So, don’t expect great literature, but I’m happy to say that, if you liked The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol is definitely more of what you like. It’s a fast read and contains some interesting, supposedly accurate information about the Masons, about whom I always feel that I ought to be more interested than I am. What kept me reading were the ideas Brown merely tantalized us with, one being the core of the message his hapless hero is attempting to decode – that the most ancient texts of human civilization describe the same phenomena as modern physics. The other is the subject of the love interest’s research, the science, or “science” if you like, of Noetics, or the “potentials and powers of consciousness” as defined by the Noetic Institute.

I despise New Age, especially the whole “Power of Intention” movement. New Agers seem to me to be mostly white, middle- and upper middle-class people who want to believe that quantum physics means that the universe is nothing more than an infinite Santa Claus, just waiting to shower them with fabulous gifts – all they have to do is give themselves permission to be greedy, and think the right thoughts. Thinking the wrong thoughts is what draws the bad stuff to you, every time. This is preached most egregiously in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, in which she tells us that everything that happens in your life, happens because of your thoughts. This includes accidents, cancer, natural disasters, and even… genocide. Yep – those people in Rwanda? They brought it on themselves, with their bad thoughts. The Holocaust? Same thing.

This is a nice, comfortable opinion to have, if nothing very bad has ever happened to you. It’s really pleasant to think that one deserves all of one’s good fortune, that it’s not because of random accidents of birth and chance. It’s pleasant to think that all the bad stuff that happens to other people, happened to them because they somehow earned it – whether it’s because they’re sinners in the Christian sense, or sinners in the New Age sense, by having the wrong intentions. It’s pleasant, but it’s bullshit. Here‘s an article on Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book on the subject, Bright-Sided, in which she links all this power-of-intention crap to the recent financial crisis.

I don’t believe there’s absolutely nothing to all of this intention stuff, but for sure it’s not as simple as the Rhonda Byrneses of the world would have you believe. I read Lynne McTaggart’s The Field, mentioned in The Lost Symbol, and was fascinated by her accounts of conventional scientists bravely following their research as it led them deeper into strange realms, of telekinesis and remote healing – until I went online and started checking up on her facts. Of course these studies and these scientists are controversial. It seems to me that there are roughly as many adherents of what we’ll call Noetics as there are opponents of it, with most people not knowing much and not caring one way or the other. People like James Randi make a living debunking psychics and faith healers, scorning them for making money off the gullible, but Randi is every bit as invested, emotionally and financially, in protecting his personal myth as Lynne McTaggart or Rhonda Byrne.

A myth is, of course, a story we use to explain reality to ourselves. In Out of Your Mind, Alan Watts describes the two major myths of western civilization. In the west, most believe that the universe was created either by God (the ceramic myth), or by the blind forces of nature (the fully automatic myth). That the rationalistic, scientific explanation of the universe is also a myth might be hard to accept, if that’s the one you grew up believing. But of course it is, and those who believe the universe was absolutely created by God feel the same way about their myth. Science, for the vast majority of us, involves nearly the same kind of faith as religion does. If you doubt this, let me ask you: how many hadron super colliders have you experimented with lately? How much can you understand of the math used by physicists to explain their conclusions? I trust peer-reviewed studies and the scientific method, replicable results, and so on, but in order to do so, I have to trust the people who are telling me that these methods work, and that these are their results. And I know that, however unimaginably good someone is at math, s/he’s still a person, with all the same faults and foibles as everybody else.

The scientific community is extremely resistant to change, and yet, huge changes happen on a fairly regular basis. They’re now exploring quantum activity in biological processes. Who knows what’s next?

Do I want to believe in telekinesis and remote healing? Sure. I also want there to be fairies and hobbits and secret doors to other worlds, but that doesn’t mean I believe that’s how the universe works. I’m agnostic on the powers of the mind, but I’m also extremely curious. I want to know what my mind can do. I’ve had some experiences with lucid dreaming, from practicing meditation, and from using the methods of NLP. I want to take it further. Weirdly, The Lost Symbol has inspired me.

And this is what’s really cool about Dan Brown. Many of us have a sense that there’s more to life than what it appears to be, more than just blind forces, and yet we’re not satisfied by conventional religion, either. Dan Brown’s world hints at mysterious connections, deeper meanings, and secret knowledge. Who else blends mysticism so perfectly with skepticism?

But he’s still a crappy writer. Here are my favorite Dan Brown mockery sites:

2 Responses to “Review: The Lost Symbol”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    I absolutely do NOT want to believe in fairies. Nasty little creatures, with bad taste, to boot.

    And while my skepticism is set at a higher pitch than yours, I nonetheless believe that, were I able to maintain a steady belief in [God], I would tend toward mysticism.

    I can get rational answers through science, logic, and reason; but the ‘something more’ I’m constantly gassing on about, well, I don’t know that that triad is of much use, there.

  2. God sometimes you just don’t come through « AbsurdBeats Says:

    […] might argue that, insofar as I accept the information gleaned from scientific processes, I have faith—if […]

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