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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: The Lost Symbol

December 10, 2009

I just read Dan Brown’s newest book, The Lost Symbol — even though it was published in September. Here’s why: I like to buy the editions of Brown’s books that come out after they make the movie, with all the gorgeous illustrations and photographs of locations like Rome and Paris. Knowing that I will eventually purchase such a volume for The Lost Symbol, I decided to get the first edition out of the library. I put my name on the reservation list, where I was number 749 in line, and I just got a copy. Loved it, love all his books, usually read them in a day or two (509 pages), and evidently so do a lot of other people.

Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times: “Brown has always written screenplays masquerading as novels.” Clearly, that’s the first type of appeal in Brown’s fast-paced, suspenseful stories. He has a knack of ending a chapter with one of his characters in such a predicament that you have to skip ahead and find out how they got out of it. The second attraction in Brown’s novels is provided by Robert Langdon, his Harvard professor hero (played by Tom Hanks), in the form of arcane but fascinating historical, cultural, and artistic trivia. This erudition did not impress Time Magazine’s Lou Grossman, who commented: “Brown’s scholarship reads like the work of a man who believes what he reads in Wikipedia.”

I, however, enjoy the places Brown takes you in his whirlwind tours of famous cities. In the case of The Lost Symbol, the story is set in Washington, D.C., a place whose treasures are far more valuable than whatever the villain and hero are chasing after in the novel. Behind the scenes at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Capitol, there is a world of documents, artworks, and artifacts, amazing in its scope and depth. To meet the people who care for and know about them is a true pleasure. The book’s website includes a Reader’s Guide to Washington, D.C., with more about these national landmarks.

I also like Brown’s puzzles, codes, and encryptions, which are always entertaining. The key puzzle in The Lost Symbol is “a perfectly square grid of symbols from every tradition imaginable — alchemical, astrological, heraldic, angelic, magical, numeric, sigilic, Greek, Latin.” The 64 symbols in the 8 by 8 grid are somewhat familiar: a row of symbols for the planets, symbols of the great religions, astrological signs. (Mine is Gemini, which looks like the Roman numeral II.) You probably have access to many of these symbols — just open up Word and change your font to Symbols or Wingdings, and you may be able to recreate Brown’s code!

Anyway, I should stop here and return my copy to the library. There’s still a waiting list with 372 eager readers on it.

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