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 49

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

  1. Robert
    at 6:26 am on January 13, 2014

    For the last few years, I’ve been telling people that “Angels and Demons” is the trashiest book I’ve ever read (no small achievement). It’s nice to know that Brown has persisted with his style of banality, incredulity and ponderous literary/historical scavenging – without actually having to read his books!

  2. Jack M
    at 7:34 am on January 13, 2014

    Lousy writing is so much fun!

  3. Ryan Ries
    at 9:42 am on January 13, 2014

    So instead of spending your time, money, and energy on, say, a terrific yet under-the-radar writer, you purchased Dan Brown’s latest book, read it, made “amusing” comments in the margins, and then wrote an article with the revolutionary premise that Dan Brown is a shitty writer. (If I had been able to write a snarky comment in this essay’s margins, it would have been: Thanks for this invaluable and thought-provoking cultural contribution!)

    There is something terribly depressing in this image of the literary intelligentsia sitting on their thrones and ironically reading bad books. Come on, Sam and Dave, don’t give up on literature just yet!

  4. Zach
    at 9:44 am on January 13, 2014

    I could likely do something very similar with DFW’s works as well.

  5. Lauren
    at 9:47 am on January 13, 2014

    While we’re on the subject of poor writing, please let me edit out the word “basically” from this margin note: “I basically haven’t been able to picture anything he’s described.” Thank you.

  6. Shannon
    at 10:18 am on January 13, 2014

    My friends and I did this in high school with some kind of series aimed at teen girls that revolved around cheerleaders. If you were fourth or fifth in line to read you would cry with laughter all the way through.

  7. Matthew Sawyer
    at 10:55 am on January 13, 2014

    Every time I read the banal comments about my own writing, I look at reviews for Dan Brown. And I rage, “How did this man get published and all I get are rejections and criticism about my cliches and grammar errors. Of course, having a sane and dependable proof reader and an editor would help those things… but they also stop my books from being professionally published. How does Brown do It? And how can I convince his readers my stories are at least moderately better?

  8. Austin
    at 11:11 am on January 13, 2014

    This article, while not revolutionary, serves a similar purpose as Brown’s novels. I was much more entertained by this than I was ‘Angels and Demons’ and ‘The DaVinci Code,’ particularly David’s “EAT SHIT” annotation.

  9. Rebecca
    at 11:12 am on January 13, 2014

    For 20 years I worked at a publishing house that makes recorded books, and I learned more from about good writing from hearing books read out loud than I did getting a BA in English. And O! Does this piece remind me of those days! We had no choice but to read these things and margin-comments were our way of relieving the agony. What we figured out is that anybody could get anything published if they are persistent enough (and this was in the days before self-publishing on a massive scale.)

    I think most people just scan and miss the silliness of so much writing and therefore don’t understand what we’re making a big deal about. I often feel like I’m speaking a different language when I discuss actual quality of writing, even with people who love reading, so I get comfort from stories like these!

    And Shannon, it also comforts me to know that there are high school kids care too.

  10. Rebecca
    at 11:13 am on January 13, 2014

    Our favorite person to pick on, btw, was Piers Anthony. There are some people in my city that very seriously wish he’d die so he won’t write more books.

  11. Sly
    at 12:09 pm on January 13, 2014

    @Zach. No you can’t. Just go and pick up Infinite Jest next time you’re in a book store and think about what you wrote.

  12. binarybastard
    at 12:13 pm on January 13, 2014

    First off, great read, I love this kind of MST3K approach to glossing works, hope to see more of it in the future.

    Secondly, I thought I’d repost my comment from a reddit discussion going on about this very article. It took me much longer than I planned on investing in it, and I would hate to see all that effort potentially buried under what I can only expect to be a torrent of downvotes.

    My response:
    People have problems with Dan Brown’s writing because he so consistently and persistently ‘gets it wrong’. And people who do care about things like characterization, plausibility, and intelligent prose are going to have problems with his writing. Most just shrug and look the other way, but others are genuinely concerned that something with so many issues can achieve such unparalleled success.

    I don’t personally think it’s a problem to read Dan Brown, and I take issue to people who say “Don’t read this book because it’s bad”, but the problem is when people start throwing all these nonsensical adjectives praising Dan Brown. I have a BA and an MA in English Lit, so I guess it’s fair to say I can easily be chucked in with the book snobs of this world, and though I will admit I’ve read all of Brown’s works for fun, I cannot concede that either his writing style or his books have any value beyond being an in-flight read. At very least his prose is terribly sloppy, to say nothing of his blatant disregard for coherent characterization. A sentence like “Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly–a field of red emblazoned with the ancient symbols of the crescent and star–vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, still flying proudly in the modern world” shouldn’t have made it past the first draft stage, much less made it past the editor. As the article above points out, it’s a repetition for starters (we get that the flag is fluttering), but the big problem for a grammarian like me is this:

    The antecedents of “vestiges” are “the ancient symbols of the crescent and star”, but since these two terms appear in the parenthetical phrase “a field of red…”, this means they don’t function as part of the grammar of the sentence. So what we really have written here is “Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly, vestiges of the Ottoman Empire…” HUH? The ‘flag is vestiges’? Grammatically that’s nonsense. Ok, so the control tower with the flag are vestiges of the Ottoman Empire? That doesn’t make any logical sense, a control tower is not a vestige of the Ottoman Empire. So clearly he meant the ancient symbols are vestiges, but his awkward and broken syntax has rendered the statement illogical and grammatically incorrect.

    Doing this once would be fine, but Dan Brown does this a lot, and then makes a lot of money for this kind of writing. But this is his profession. It’s his job (if not to get this right, then at least to try. It’s not like it’s his shtick to flaunt the flaunt the rules of grammar and syntax, if it was I would shut up). If a factory worker messed up like this, and did so consistently, we might not fire them, sure, but we certainly wouldn’t be giving them a massive raise and calling them one of the best workers in the field. Or, if we did, a lot of his fellow workers (and perhaps even a few laymen) might start to wonder just what the hell some people were thinking, and they might take to a forum (like the internet) to express those valid concerns. But again, that doesn’t mean Dan Brown shouldn’t be read, or even enjoyed; people can do whatever they want. But the problems with his prose are alone the reasons why his works will never be compared favorably to Moby Dick.

    TL;DR English major tries to explain a potential reason why people take issue with Dan Brown’s writings.

  13. T
    at 2:26 pm on January 13, 2014

    Frankly, the writer sounds like a little bitch, but maybe that’s just me. Like Brown’s writing or not, there has to be better things to do with one’s time.

  14. PJ
    at 4:24 pm on January 13, 2014

    @T: there has to be better things to do with one’s time

    Like calling a stranger a “little bitch”?

  15. timble
    at 6:57 pm on January 13, 2014

    @Sly

    Infinite Jest is unimpeachable in its totality (and one of the few books I love with no reservation), but Broom of the System has room in the margins for no little snark. It’s the kind of freshman work that should have stayed in a drawer–not because it’s so bad, but because it’s the clearly underdeveloped work of someone whose later talent renders it disappointing in retrospect. Plus there is some real boring shit in it.

    Anyway. Writing about Dan Brown on the Millions is like showing a latter-day Adam Sandler vacation home movie at Cannes. Yes, he is a writer of books, and this is a website about books, and there ends the common ground.

  16. Rastaman426
    at 7:13 pm on January 13, 2014

    What if I wanted to read Dan Brown’s book to learn about history in a fun setting? All the facts in his books are verifiable (especially in the day and age of all mighty Google) so what’s wrong with that?

  17. Andres
    at 7:20 pm on January 13, 2014

    Please do a similar one on Paul Auster!

  18. Easyester
    at 8:42 pm on January 13, 2014

    DB’s writing is dumb and boring and he doesn’t develop any interesting ideas that are clearly his own. The only thing that makes him of interest to me is that he raises the question of what publishers are looking for and why. Once in a while no-talent hacks rise to fame and fortune for no good reason, they just happened to know somebody and show up on the right day.

  19. Dan
    at 9:01 pm on January 13, 2014

    @Rastaman426

    Reading Dan Brown to learn about history is like those people who read sparknotes on classics so they appear to be well-read. Besides, that’s what Dan Brown does. He skims the surface of history looking for little anecdotes he can adapt into a story or simply boring filler to boost his word count. There are some entertaining history and autobiographical texts by real historians or influential people. You’re better off learning and being entertained by first-handers and people who actually know what they’re talking about. Perfect example: Guns, Germs, and Steel.

  20. Brian
    at 10:30 pm on January 13, 2014

    And yet, Dan Brown has made way more $ than the author of this article. Oh, and people have heard of Dan Brown’s name whereas nobody knows who ‘Sam Anderson’ is. Lol.

  21. David Norelid
    at 12:19 am on January 14, 2014

    We have three dogs named (from left to right) Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Hardy Boys. Thanks for giving them a shout out on the DEATH MASK page. They’re great dogs and they are not fans of Dan Brown either.

  22. Jim
    at 2:17 am on January 14, 2014

    some seriously dickish comments here. i liked brown as a child, but recently listened to Inferno on a long road trip. rolled my eyes so much it was a driving hazard.

  23. Madeleine Berenson
    at 8:27 am on January 14, 2014

    Deliciously funny. It reminded me of Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html

  24. Ulysses Leibowitz
    at 9:27 am on January 14, 2014

    Danikova sounds an awful lot like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

  25. Jennifer
    at 3:42 pm on January 14, 2014

    Thank you for so humorously capturing the ridiculousness of this book! Will you please do The Lost Symbol, too? There are so many great moments in that one, from the breathless students in his Harvard lectures to the female character that he uses every synonym for “fat” to describe any time she appears.

  26. Deidre Schoolcraft
    at 4:27 pm on January 14, 2014

    I feel so validated. For my community college Creative Writing final, I used to make my freshmen and sophomores read the first chapter of the DaVinci Code and tell me why it was crap. Now I do it with Stefani Meyer’s Twilight. Thank you for writing this.

  27. James
    at 7:08 pm on January 14, 2014

    “And yet, Dan Brown has made way more $ than the author of this article. Oh, and people have heard of Dan Brown’s name whereas nobody knows who ‘Sam Anderson’ is. Lol.”

    Well, that settles it then. Brown’s books have made him very rich. He must be right and Anderson must be wrong, because we all know that money is the final determination of literary quality.

    Move along people.

    Nothing else to see here.

  28. Andy
    at 7:34 pm on January 14, 2014

    For being an artisanal pencil sharpener, David’s red pencil doesn’t seep all that sharp…

  29. Jenny Bhatt
    at 9:59 pm on January 14, 2014

    Both hilarious and sad. The latter, because there are so many writers out there who can write much better than this but do not get to make even a small percent of Brown’s millions. It makes you sad for what this means for our culture, our humanity….. (ellipsis intended).

  30. weasel soup
    at 12:01 am on January 15, 2014

    Anyone read the 50 Shades of Grey books? They are *worse* than Dan Brown

  31. Jenny Bhatt
    at 12:06 am on January 15, 2014

    @weasel soup:

    I haven’t read 50 Shades, but, in 2012, I did come across this hilarious blog where the blogger did a close reading of them, chapter by chapter, and blogged her thoughts. I found her posts very entertaining and wonder if they might sell more if made into a book. But, that’s not likely to happen, sadly.

    http://somethingshortandsnappy.blogspot.com/2012/05/announcing-bad-idea.html

    You’ll have to browse through using her labels / categories as it’s not easy to find the posts chronologically.

    Apparently, there have been similar deconstructions of the Twilight books online too, though I haven’ read those.

  32. Chemondelay
    at 1:01 am on January 15, 2014

    @Ryan Ries

    So instead of spending your time, money, and energy on, say, a terrific yet under-the-radar writer, you purchased Dan Brown’s latest book, read it, made “amusing” comments in the margins, and then wrote an article with the revolutionary premise that Dan Brown is a shitty writer. (If I had been able to write a snarky comment in this essay’s margins, it would have been: Thanks for this invaluable and thought-provoking cultural contribution!)

    There is something terribly depressing in this image of the literary intelligentsia sitting on their thrones and ironically reading bad books. Come on, Sam and Dave, don’t give up on literature just yet!

    LITERATURE!!! ;__;

  33. haints
    at 2:20 am on January 15, 2014

    Yeah, you guys! Why do you have to be so negative? Can’t you be more positive? Okay, so you don’t enjoy Mr. Brown’s writing. Well, lots and lots of people DO enjoy it! They can’t all be wrong, can they? So why don’t you guys write about a book that you DO love instead of one that you DON’T love. Then SHARE that love with all of US, so that we can all enjoy that love, TOGETHER!

    If you did that, it would be a really beautiful thing.

  34. Ryan Ries
    at 9:29 am on January 15, 2014

    Chemondelay

    Yes, don’t give up on literature, as in, don’t waste your time on lazy, lowest-hanging-fruit essays like this and instead challenge yourself to find and celebrate a real piece of art.

  35. weasel soup
    at 11:29 am on January 15, 2014

    @ Jenny Bhatt
    Thanks for the link! I can in turn recommend the recaps at http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/jenny-reads-50-shades-of-grey/ and http://www.snarksquad.com/category/books-2/fifty-shades too (that’s a lot of recaps, but they’re both great takedowns as well.

    I guess I like the schadenfreude of reading about why bad writing is bad…

  36. Jessica
    at 2:05 pm on January 15, 2014

    Seriously, this hit Broadway musical idea of yours sounds amazingly spectacular and I highly encourage you to do it.

  37. Christine
    at 6:08 pm on January 15, 2014

    LOL Good work The Millions! Spoiler Alert: Dan Brown’s next book is a “Choose Your Own Ending” (remember those) published by Scholastic and sold to unsuspecting middle schoolers….

  38. Marta
    at 6:18 pm on January 15, 2014

    Sam and Dave.
    Love it.
    Now I want “Sam and Dave Go To The Opera”

  39. Jenny Bhatt
    at 8:40 pm on January 15, 2014

    Having gotten over my initial mirth, I am now wondering, rather glumly, about the publishers and editors who allowed so many glaring issues to see the light of day. I mean, really, didn’t someone at Doubleday say, sure, it’s bestselling Dan Brown, but, you know, let’s have someone read the thing before it goes to print. Or, did they just decide that there would be plenty of readers who wouldn’t care for decent writing, so, why bother? Either way, shouldn’t these careless publishers and editors be held just as responsible as the writer for inflicting this stuff on the reading public?

    Someone should get a Doubleday rep on the phone/email/Twitter, present them with this marginalia and at least pose the question.

  40. Mark
    at 5:30 am on January 16, 2014

    @haints

    “They can’t all be wrong, can they?”

    YES. They can. They are. They will be. Just because one knows how to read, doesn’t mean one need be thoughtful or even smart. Reading well, however, reading with even a smidgen of critical input, reading with the responsibility to complete the circle of the story that the writer has started—doing this takes more than scanning words with the same attention one gives to a Sharper Image catalog or a copy of Varmint Hunter.

    This is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long while. And reading humorous takedowns of prose we know is bad often does more good for me as a writer than reading a good story. I know, it shouldn’t be this way, but by the end of the piece I was thinking that a great craft book could be entitled ‘Just Don’t(…)” – then it could be filled with DB excerpts (and zillions of other authors) and the red and black marginalia from this wonderful duo. Over many years of reading accepted good writing, arguably passable writing, and certain bad writing, I often revisit my own work most effectively and with more confidence (less vitriolic self-criticism?) after reading first-draft-unedited-but-shockingly-published stinky garbage like Dan Brown.

    To know you might have a chance of penning a better than average story, a story that might have some legs, a story that proves you have more talent than Dan Brown or your other favorite ham-handed typer, you only have to read his line, ‘Apparently a background in drama could be a versatile weapon.’ If you read that with your mouth full and you don’t choke on your food with a gut laugh and think ‘Holy shitballs, my cat writes better than that when she runs across the keyboard,’ then you haven’t a chance on earth.

    Thanks, guys. This was a gas.

    PS – @Ryan Ries – I’m pretty darn sure Sam and David didn’t make “amusing” comments. They made amusing comments.

  41. jen
    at 2:41 pm on January 16, 2014

    But, there is such a thing as paroxysmal positional vertigo. I have no idea what the book is about…..is it still dumb even though this is a real condition? Not defending the book in any way.

  42. Rick
    at 4:58 pm on January 17, 2014

    Keep it up. This is funny and righteous. I also recommend: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10049454/Dont-make-fun-of-renowned-Dan-Brown.html

  43. Molly
    at 5:50 pm on January 17, 2014

    Would have enjoyed The Da Vinci Code SO much more if I’d taken this approach. Instead I just cursed all the way through.

  44. Rob
    at 2:17 am on January 18, 2014

    What an indulgent prat Dan Brown has proved to be – I just finished reading – no sorry, skimming, this ridiculous book and I wanted to post a reflection of my anger and sheer frustration that this nonsense could actually be published – shame on the publishers, shame on the editors – you have sold your souls for a few unworthy shekels. Shame on you.

  45. Kirk
    at 10:19 am on January 18, 2014

    DB sounds like the literary equivalent to Thomas Kincade.

  46. haints
    at 1:38 am on January 22, 2014

    Ah, Mark, my comment was intended as a satire. I liked this piece and was making fun of the “why can’t you just say something positive?” people.

  47. Florence Inferno
    at 10:31 am on May 29, 2014

    However we have been able to create a fantastic tour of Florence based on the Dan Brown’s novel :-)

  48. Webtacular World Issue # 7 January 19, 2014 | Webtacular World
    at 2:08 am on June 3, 2014

    […] THING OF THE WEEK (5 min. read) What: Dan Brown Sucks At Writing Why: Because Dan Brown is a terrible author, and the world needs to know […]

  49. Melinda Cook
    at 12:40 am on June 16, 2014

    I don’t find it ironic that the majority of those who trash Dan Browns novels online are the same people who spend most of their time facebooking, blogging and twittering strangers online also.
    They spend so much time twittering about themselves, they cringe at the prospect of celebrating someone else.
    Celebrating someone who’s genuinely successful.

    To enjoy Dan Brown, you need to have a reasonable attention span and at least an above average grip of the English written word.

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