Brownian Motion

Dan Brown and I have a lot in common. The Da Vinci Code author and I share a first name, obviously, and we both have five letter last names containing ‘o’, ‘r’, and ‘n’. We’re both writers. Dan Brown has a hojillion dollars. I wish I had a hojillion dollars.

You might think, given all our similarities, that I’m a big Dan Brown fan. I tell you now that nothing could be further from the truth. Dan Brown resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from Steve Jobs as far as I’m concerned. The man is tarnishing our good name with dreck like The Da Vinci Code. To illustrate, let me share with you, if I may, my absolute favorite sentence from the book.

First, to set the scene: the two main characters are in a Swiss bank, awaiting a safe deposit box, which will arrive shortly via conveyor belt.

Standing beside the belt, they felt like weary travelers at baggage claim awaiting a mysterious piece of luggage whose contents were unknown. (p.190)

I had to go back and reread this sentence, just to make sure that it was, in fact, quite possibly the most useless sentence ever constructed in the English language. Then I had to go show it to Jason. By the power of our English degrees combined, we determined that there are no less than three issues, which I’ll present now, in increasing order of severity.

  1. A “mysterious piece of luggage whose contents were unknown” is redundant. Of course a mysterious piece of luggage’s contents are unknown. That’s why it’s mysterious.
  2. What kind of stupid traveler doesn’t remember what they packed in their luggage? To all of you who will point out that it doesn’t say it’s their luggage, I ask you this: why in God’s name would you wait at baggage claim for someone else’s luggage?
  3. According to the Oxford American Dictionary—not to mention my third grade teacher, Miss Abraham—a simile is “a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox).” But such pedantic rules are not for the likes of Mr. Brown. If I may rephrase the sentence—ahem—”Two tired people waiting for a mysterious box was rather like two tired people waiting for a mysterious box.” You can’t compare something to something else if it’s the same bloody thing.

The other priceless gem in the book is a scene in a Louvre bathroom where the book’s hero, dashing Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, eludes capture when his charming female companion Sophie removes a tracking device from his person, presses it into a bar of soap and throws it out the window onto a moving truck. This prompts the obvious question: when was the last time you saw a bar of soap in a public bathroom? I don’t care if it’s the Louvre. I’ve been there, and I’m not buying it. Dan Brown is, of course, so rich that he doesn’t ever need to use a public restroom and, in fact, should he be someplace where he needs to use the facilities, he can afford to have his own private bathroom built on the spot. I hear they’re very nice.

By now you’re probably of one of two opinions. Either a) you’re vowing to never read anything by Dan Brown ever again or—far more likely—b) you’re rolling your eyes and wondering what the hell I’m going on about. I suppose “c) you’ve stopped reading this post altogether” is also a possibility, but, well, that’s neither here nor there. Lest you think my criticism of the book and the author boils down to just two sentences, let me add the following: his characters are ciphers, his plot is predictable, and his writing is generally weak. In short, he’s overhyped. The only thing interesting in the least about The Da Vinci Code are some of the ideas he advances about the history of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail.

Which he borrowed from another source.

This week marked the beginning of a trial in London in which two of the three authors of a book about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail are suing The Da Vinci Code publisher Random House (through a twist of fate, acquisitions, and mergers it also happens to be the publisher of their own book). The suit alleges that The Da Vinci Code uses “the central theme” from their book. Brown, for his part, has acknowledged his debt to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (the American title is Holy Blood, Holy Grail) and went so far as to name one of his characters after a combination of the two authors’ names (no doubt the real reason they’re suing).

Now, having gone on my Dan Brown-induced rant above, you might think I’d be overcome with ecstasy upon hearing about the court case. And, at first, I admit, I may have done a little dance, perhaps hopped jovially from foot to foot. But as I listened to the contentions of the plaintiffs, my enthusiasm was replaced by another thought, namely, that this court case is complete and utter shite.

Writers steal. It’s just the way it is. Painters, musicians, writers, sculptors, poets, creative artists of any kind, they all steal. They’re stealers. Sometimes it’s as simple as being influenced unconsciously by another artist, sometimes it’s outright theft. It’s hard to explain why I think this is excusable, when in academia it’s a major offense. I think it may have something to do with the fact that there is so much more at stake in academia, as opposed to fiction, which is mainly just about money. James Frey got smacked down for fabricating parts of A Million Little Pieces, a problem that would never have come up if it had been released as fiction instead of memoir. People who write fiction lie for a living. As my cousin Jim would say: It’s what they do. It’s all they do.

Granted, Baigent and Leigh, the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail are suing Random House UK for breaching UK copyright law, rather than suing Brown. Now, if the book is non-fiction, I see no problem with Brown taking inspiration from it. Nobody owns history. If you’re the first person to uncover the fact that Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress, I don’t see how you could sue someone for writing a historical novel (that’s fiction) about it. Otherwise, you could kiss goodbye books like Siddhartha and I, Claudius, not to mention three out of the five movies nominated for Best Picture this year.

If, on the other hand, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is fiction, well, not only would such an admission undermine a large part of whatever reputation the authors have, but they’d probably be getting a call from Oprah.

In the end, these authors are shooting themselves in the collective foot. I would have to imagine that, given the success of The Da Vinci Code, the sales of their book have never been better. As of this writing, it’s listed as #28 on Amazon’s book sale list. And yet this whole issue smacks of greed to me. Would they be suing if The Da Vinci Code had tanked, or even been only a modest success? But no, they want a cut of the hojillion dollars. Who wouldn’t?

A decision in favor of Leigh and Baigent could have a chilling effect as serious as the non-commerical use of trademark bill recently introduced in Congress. We’re entering an age when authors will have to walk through the world with their eyes closed and ears covered, lest they accidentally take inspiration from something they see around them. At least they’ll be able to use their noses to make sure they don’t step in dog crap. For now, anyway.

I’m not sure I understand the issue with Dan Brown… If bars of soap in bathrooms sells books, then presumably that’s what people want to read about, no? Maybe your frustration would be better directed towards the people who bought the book?

I personally liked the DaVinci code. It wasn’t one of my favorite books ever, but I could not put it down once I started reading it. That’s unusual for me and reading. Getting though books is usually a struggle. I’m not saying it was a literary masterpiece, but it kept me entertained. (This certainly says more about my low standards than about the quality of the book, but the end result is the same). Incidentally, I was caught off guard by the same sentence about the mysterious luggage, but I just laughed and read the next five chapters anyways.

As far as copyright infringement… I totally agree with what you said about their case, but I have a question. If the book that Brown allegedly copied from had been non-fiction, and a significant portion of Brown’s reasearch was based on that book, is Brown under any obligation to “cite” them? (I’m thinking of this from an academic perspective…)

My main complaint with Dan Brown’s writing style is the fact that his chapters are, on average, two pages long.

On intellectual property law:

The historians have no case unless they can demonstrate that Brown somehow stole their actual writing. If he ripped off their actual wording, it would clearly be plagiarism; if he lifted the structure of the story from their book or actual scenes they dreamed up (admittedly as speculation), it might also be plagiarism; if he was just inspired by a book they insist is actually history, they haven’t a leg to stand on, because then the historical events are considered information, and you can’t copyright the information itself in a resource like a history book. (Or a phone book, for that matter—yes, you could legally go and take all the names and phone numbers from the phone book and start your own phone book, as long as you presented it differently.)

I’m confused as to why creative professionals are so concerned about this trademark bill. The IP expert-to-be in my office tells me that the new bill is better because it now extends the same protection that non-commercial works once had to all works. That’s a good thing.

I’m confused as to why creative professionals are so concerned about this trademark bill. The IP expert-to-be in my office tells me that the new bill is better because it now extends the same protection that non-commercial works once had to all works.

Odd. The sense I get from what I’ve read has been almost the exact opposite, though I suppose it could be biased since it was from the Author’s Guild. They claim “One of the important protections for writers using others’ trademarks is section 43(c)(4)(B) of the Lanham Act, which excludes noncommercial and news reporting uses from several types of liability under trademark law. The new law would weaken these protections, exposing writers to greater potential liability for their use of trademarks. ” (Source). Have you seen any other commentary on it?

Jordan: To a certain extent, I’m being a snob. The Da Vinci Code is hardly the worst book ever written, but neither is it the best thing since fork-split English muffins. Sometimes, I just find myself utterly bemused by the stratospheric heights its reached. I mean, the book is so popular that it hasn’t been released in paperback in the US, because the publishers are milking totally higher profits from continuing to sell the hardcover. This, for a book that was released nigh on three years ago. I guess I just wish standards were higher. I must be getting old.

because then the historical events are considered information, and you can’t copyright the information itself in a resource like a history book.

Are you under any obligation to ‘list your sources’ of information?


Jordan: Nope, you don’t need to cite a history book if you’re reading fiction. If you did, that would really slow down movies and books like Saving Private Ryan or Shogun. Nor do you need to cite Verizon if you want to make a phone book based on what you find in theirs. The academic citation system is a mutually agreed-upon convention to make research easier and more effective, not anything mandated by law. Consider all the news articles you read describing the (highly abridged) results of “a recent study” without ever actually mentioning the names of the studies themselves or the people conducting them.

Dan: I saw the same concerns expressed by some professional organization for stock photographers (linked to by a graphic design blog), so authors aren’t the only ones concerned about this. It confused me, so I asked the aforementioned fellow studying IP law. Apparently, IP nerds are all about this bill because it actually relaxes restrictions so the non-commercial standard should be applied across the board, regardless of use. He told me to go read the law itself, and I did, and you could certainly read it that way … but I’m not clear if it was intended to be read that way.

Dan Brown won!

i’m glad to hear somebody else acknowledge the sheer horror of they guy’s writing…by the time i’d finished the second page i was shaking my head in wonder that i’d heard so much praise for the book and no mention whatever of how unbelievably badly-written it was. it’s inexcusable; agonizing. how the hell did it make it to press in that condition? i’m surprised you only found two priceless gems in the book…i found more than one on most of the pages. the book is a literate person’s nightmare. fortunately for brown, literate people are few and far between any more…

[…] Code, based on Dan Brown’s bestselling novel. My feelings about Brown and his writing are a matter of record—this is the man who wrote a sentence so ridiculous and nonsensical that it ought to be […]

[…] cycling every five minutes or so. And, to its credit, the film version doesn’t make you read the worst sentence ever or attempt to pretend that there’s bar soap in the Louvre washrooms. That’s something, […]