Annals of Japery and Notable Articles

“Dumbest Thing Ever”: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno

By posted at 6:00 am on January 13, 2014 63

coverI am on record, both in this magazine and in my local newspaper, as an enthusiastic defacer of books. Recently I had a new kind of marginal experience that I would like to share: the pleasure of joint, or (as they say in grad seminars) “dialogic” marginalia.

The book was Dan Brown’s Inferno. Like most writerers [sic], I am crazy about Dan Brown. Why does he write the way he does? Is he a sneaky genius? How is it possible that he was once in a writing seminar with David Foster Wallace? (One of my dreams is to write a hit Broadway musical about that seminar, in which Dan Brown strides around the stage wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches singing bombastic anthems about the great masterpieces of Europe while DFW sings introverted atonal fugues with mumbling sotto voce footnotes.)

I purchased and read Inferno, which was inscrutable and interminable, and as I read I scribbled in its margins. When I finished, my friend David Rees, the artisanal pencil sharpener, asked if he could borrow it. He added his thoughts.

It was fun to see someone else’s words next to mine. I wrote in black pen, in cursive. David wrote in red pencil, in block letters. I was semi-serious. David swore and told a lot of jokes. Usually we agreed, but occasionally we disagreed. Here are some of the highlights.

WARNING: There are probably Dan Brown spoilers here, but come on, seriously.

Very early in Inferno, I realized that Dan Brown’s career-long fetish for ellipses had reached a whole new level. Basically, ellipses are the hero of the book. They make their first appearance on the dedication page.

After a while I started trying to circle all of them, which became a meditative exercise.

Sometimes I would miss one and David would catch it for me.

We spent most of our time in the margins making fun of Dan Brown.

We mocked his pacing,

his dialogue,

his dialect,

his artless exposition,

his anti-powers of description,

his careless repetitions,

his weak grasp of human behavior,

his lust for fame,

his characters’ gender stereotypes,

his implausible plot points,

and probably the worst “academic” lecture in the history of fiction.

Along the way, we managed to isolate the keywords of the Dan Brown lexicon.

Sometimes David added illustrations.

Usually, David and I agreed.

But sometimes we didn’t.

Recently I passed the book to another friend, who will add her marginal notes, and then I will pass it to someone else, and then someone else, and on and on until eventually we have written more words in Dan Brown’s book than Dan Brown himself. This seems like the only way to tame the monster at the heart of the Inferno.

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63 Responses to ““Dumbest Thing Ever”: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno”

  1. haints
    at 11:25 am on August 11, 2014

    “In medical school we had a saying “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”. I guess in this case it should be “those who can, write books that sell, those who can’t, make fun of those who can””

    Right, because the only way to truly judge the quality of a work is by how much it sells. That’s is why Van Gogh sucked while he was alive, and then suddenly got really great after he died …

    Yet another example that a medical degree is no guarantee of intelligence …

  2. Senator K.F. Tutwiller (& Faithful Biographer Moe Murph)
    at 12:32 pm on August 11, 2014


    Per my recent Tweetage, I am Outraged and full of Umbrage that the great name of Mr. Dan Brown has been so sorely maligned by you and that Malignant Sharpener of Pencils.

    What next, an attack on the Modern Prophetess of Human Improvement, Amy Chua? My Faithful Biographer Moe Murph will be regularly reporting back to me on the Outrageous Stream of Verbiage and the Attendant Most Impertinent Comments.

    Sir, were I but yet Corporeal and not a being afloat on the Etheric Twitter Cloud, I would thrash you both soundly.


    Senator Kefuaver F. Tutwiller, IV (1823-1913)
    Etheric Twitter Cloud

  3. Karen Newcombe
    at 9:49 am on August 16, 2014

    Book? Inferno isn’t a book, it’s an infomercial cobbled together by the makers of tweed jackets and gin.

  4. Wes
    at 5:55 am on August 30, 2014

    I just finished reading the book and I found the story enjoyable. I guess I read for an enjoyable story rather than a literary orgasm. I also don’t have a B.A. in English so I don’t pick apart his writing. After seeing your margin notes though I can completely understand where you are coming from. Especially the bit about how you had trouble imagining whatever he was trying to explain. At times I’d just Google the damn thing. Other than that, the flaws went right over my head.

    I figure it is a lot like painting. When I see a painting it is either ugly or beautiful, but to an artist they see every brush stroke, colour, technique, etc. and then make their judgement.

    A lot of his success did come from how “controversial” his second book was. Since then everyone will pick up whatever he writes now and he doesn’t even have to try.

    Since Dan Brown is forever ruined for me and I am amongst literary scholars, enlighten me to a well written thriller with a good story. :) I’d appreciate it!

  5. Thomas Hudgins
    at 10:41 am on November 26, 2014

    I just love the pompous BS you hear form the “intellectual” elite. If you were so perfect and incredible a writer, I would assume it would be you and your friend who were making millions of dollars “entertaining” the masses.

    You are entitled to your opinions of course, as such perfect writers you both are in your own minds. However, I don’t think many people really care what your opinion is at all. I know I certainly do not (chuckle, chuckle “…”).

  6. Thomas Hudgins
    at 10:43 am on November 26, 2014

    Well, well. look at my typo in my previous response. Guess I’ll get ton of crap about that. Oh well.

  7. Evelyn Walsh
    at 10:56 am on December 1, 2014

    How did I miss this? O joy! LOVE

  8. Moe Murph
    at 11:17 am on December 1, 2014

    TO WES – RE: “Since Dan Brown is forever ruined for me and I am amongst literary scholars, enlighten me to a well written thriller with a good story. :) I’d appreciate it!”

    Hi Wes, just noticed this. Sir, you have a wry and funny natural writing voice and I would vouchsafe that many of the “literary scholars” are not as sly and witty as you, so please do not undersell yourself! Given the damage that has been done by our silly comments, may I offer some suggestions below:

    a.) The Manchurian Candidate – Richard Condon

    b.) The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John le Carre (accent missing)

    c.) The World At Night – Alan Furst (Note: Mid-90’s — I am not that familiar with author but many good words from other readers)

    d.) The Third Man and other Stories – Graham Green (The Master — God, what a writer)

    e.) Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith (Wonderful, best of the “Renko” series)

    f.) Lee Child – “The Killing Floor” (Lee Child, Lee Child, unstoppable force, who has addicted every member of the Murphy family. I am ashamed to say I haven’t read him yet and at Thanksgiving, the entire family shook their heads and sighed)

    Hope you enjoy!

    Moe Murph

  9. bob
    at 12:12 pm on December 1, 2014

    Only really, really stupid people–and by that I mean people like you Thomas–equate popularity with quality.

  10. Haux Kloan
    at 12:50 pm on December 4, 2014

    This article made me chuckle. I have never tried to read Brown’s more famous works – I’ve only read ~1/3 the way through Deception Point, at which time my incredulity at the “science” he proposed (I am a professional researcher in the geosciences and get to work a lot with aerospace engineers) in his book, and prefaced it with something to the effect of “all of the technology in this book is possible and real”, caused me to put the damn thing down and never pick it up again. Zero desire. It was just so goddamn bogus. It remains one of three fiction books I have never finished reading, nor do I plan to.
    It just wasn’t enjoyable, because it wasn’t believable. This coming from a guy who loves fantasy and sci-fi; for whom suspension of disbelief comes easily. I think maybe you can have a shitty plot, but good writing, or a good plot, and shitty writing, but not both. Maybe the success of bad literature lies in the combination of mediocre plot + shitty writing (+/- controversy?). Perhaps that’s the sweet spot.

  11. Länksamling 2014:01 |
    at 11:07 am on January 9, 2015

    […] Politiskt deprimerad? Njut av den här magnifikt skadeglada recensionen av Dan Browns senaste mästerverk. (themillions) […]

  12. Clark Matthews
    at 2:11 pm on January 24, 2015

    I have read all but the latest of Dan Brown’s books and must admit that I enjoyed most of them. Like it or not, he writes books that people read. Recently, I stopped reading a “well-written” book less than half-way through because it bored the hell out of me. I just finished Brown’s first book, Digital Fortress–a complete mess. The mystery here is how this one got published at all. Bad books by established authors are nothing new, but this was his first novel. Who did he have to blow to get it on the market? I want his name and number, because I have a book that’s nearly as bad and going nowhere.

  13. Erica W
    at 5:34 am on April 7, 2015

    Clark – now there’s a positive approach to discovering bad popular literature. :-)

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