When you hear a grown man tell a crowded auditorium that his inspiration to become a writer came from a children’s mystery book series, you can be forgiven for staring with your mouth agape. And when that man is a bestselling author you have decided to stay away from, there’s enough to pat your back.
Delivering the Penguin Annual Lecture at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi yesterday, Dan Brown convinced me (and perhaps many others in the audience) that he is the lucky recipient of absolutely undeserved attention.
Accompanying a writer friend who had to cover the event, I had been drawn to the lecture by hoping to uncover the biggest mystery surrounding bestselling authors: How does such trash give scores of people giddy knees. Last evening was not going to answer that question in totality, even after marvelous words of wisdom from Mr. Brown: At being asked whether writers were soft targets on controversial issues and what responsibilities they had, he explained, “They say the pen is mightier than the sword. The thing about the pen is, it can reach a million people. A sword, well…”
It was an entertaining evening though, mostly because of the audience, like the chump who stood up to proudly state “Sir, I’ve just finished reading The Da Vinci Code, it is the first book I have EVER read” or when Brown looked particularly nervous and fidgety at being asked how he researched for his books or decided what to include or keep out. He finally answered, “I spent one year researching for my books.” Imagine, a whole year of research on books that proclaim to lay bare buried secrets of one of the most prominent religions of the world. Reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time could take longer.
While I’m still questioning the worth of this “gleefully erudite” novel and its writer, it has pushed me to ponder over another matter: Could I possibly be a book snob?
Here’s the dilemma. Just because Wodehouse makes me chuckle and Proust makes my heart sing, should I necessarily roll my eyes at readers engrossed in Dan Brown or even the likes of Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi?
Or, as a bibliophile, should I simply rejoice at them having found books, utter drivel as they may be?
Many who argue for the latter state that these writers have brought non-readers to the written word, even considering them instrumental in keeping publishers afloat. The argument runs that Shakespeare also played to the gallery in his time. Who knows how these men will come to be revered in future they say. ‘All fiction is entertainment after all. These men have caught the pulse of the multitude, give them that at least.’
A young girl in the audience at last evening’s lecture asked Dan Brown why each of his books has a murder in the first few pages.
“I want my books to be fun. I want people to regret putting them down to complete their daily chores.”
What really is better or right or worth a celebration then? Should we leave it at letting people discover what they might in words, with whomsoever they choose for company?
In 2005, Salman Rushdie called The Da Vinci Code, “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”. And yet sometimes the same person may discover and enjoy both him and Brown at different times.
The answer I believe rests in timelessness. For true art may lack universal appeal but it can hardly enjoy only fleeting attention.
Given the lifetime worth of wonders to devour, the choice may not really be between murder in five pages or description of insomnia over fifty. It is about realizing that life is too short to read Dan Brown.