The Lost Symbol

While I'm pleased that I didn't purchase this book for myself, I must note that I don't disapprove of Dan Brown the way some people do. This is the third Brown book that I've read and if nothing else, he's usually entertaining... though for me, a fair amount of that entertainment might be experienced at his or his main character's expense. To read Brown, you have to accept the ridiculous plotlines and the large number of inaccuracies. He's not going for accurate so much as he's a master of finding random facts, tossing everything into a pot and asking, "What if they were all connected?" He doesn't believe that they are, but to weaker minds, he might be easily seized upon as uncovering conspiracies. Brown is not a conspiracy theorist, he's a best-selling fiction writer. He writes suspense novels and you usually get an interesting city tour out of it (even if it's not a trustworthy one). He's not a brilliant writer, but he has stumbled upon a formula that works for him. He writes short chapters that always end on cliffhangers and works up a plot that is designed to make the reader feel intelligent without actually understanding anything that's going on as it pertains to the complicated ideas -- the reader just has to keep up with the constant dashing from place to place. Puzzles that are hyped as unsolveable turn out to be numerals that are just upsidedown and Robert Langdon, the physically fit Harvard professor of "Symbology" (because "Semiotics" was apparently too difficult a word, Brown had to invent "Symbology"?), always seems to be called into a crisis situtation where his interpretation of some symbol, code, or painting will be the key to saving the world.
This time, Langdon thinks he's heading to Washington, D.C. to serve as the last-minute speaker for an event as a favor to his friend and mentor, Peter Solomon. When he arrives, Langdon does not find an audience ready to hear his lecture on Masonic symbols in our nation's capitol, but rather, he finds his friend's severed hand and Langdon realizes that he's been led right into a trap. Peter has been kidnapped (and mutilated), this big tattooed guy named Mal'akh is holding him hostage (and is also looking to eliminate Peter's sister, Katherine), and Langdon's only chance at saving Peter rests in his uncovering a secret that the Masons have spent centuries keeping safe. I'll give you a hint: even though we spend a lot of time talking about Katherine's scientific research in the field of noetics, it has absolutely nothing to do with that. The whole noetics thing has no bearing whatsoever on the main plot, it's just a cool idea Brown thought he'd toss in so we had some "science" in there somewhere. Instead, the focus here is on the Freemasons, an often misunderstood society known for harboring a whole lot of secrets.
If you really like Dan Brown, then it probably doesn't matter what this book is about -- you'll read it and be mildly entertained. I preferred Angels and Demons to The Da Vinci Code and think The Lost Symbol is the weakest of the three. Perhaps it's because we're no longer running through European cities, but sticking close to home in our nation's capitol. Perhaps it's because I probably would have enjoyed watching National Treasure more than reading this if I wanted conspiracies about Freemasons. Perhaps it's because the threats didn't seem quite so mind-bogglingly ridiculous and so they were disappointing. Perhaps it's because I didn't feel like Brown had achieved his goal of at least keeping me entertained. (I stopped in the middle of one of his three-page chapters when I glanced at one of my houseplants and wondered if I could develop a cutting in water. I then proceded to carry out this spontaneous experiment. To me, that's a good indication that someone is bored.) Whatever the reason, by the time I was a quarter of a way through The Lost Symbol, I knew that finishing it would feel more like a chore than a pleasant diversion. It seemed as though Brown had let a lot of criticisms get to him and so things seemed less ridiculous (Dan Brown books have become synonymous with "ridiculous," so what's the point when they don't live up to that?); the ultimate threats seemed lame and the final revelation of Mal'akh's true identity was something every reader should have guessed by Chapter 20 (aka roughly around page five). Langdon spent a lot of time repeating himself and then, in turn, being lectured at by others -- every person at one time or another seemed to serve the purpose of being a human encyclopedia. Even more so than in his other books, I felt like Brown tossed in a lot of random details that seemed cool. Brown books are entirely composed of random facts thrown together, but there were lots of stragglers this time that had no tie-in. Among these random things were Katherine's noetics studies, heat-sensing vision goggles that could show the temperature differences of objects (thus indicating where people had been and so allowing one to sort of see back in time), and breathable oxygenated liquid serving as a means of torture.
I suppose poor Dan Brown must be feeling intense pressure after the success of his past books -- but then, this sold something like a million copies on its first day of release, so in those terms, this one's a success, too. I do hope, though, that if Brown has another Robert Langdon book in the works, he returns to the crazy kind of plots that involve priests piloting helicopters to save Rome from city-leveling explosions during conclave. It's what made him the best-selling success that he is. Yes, it's ridiculous... but better ridiculous and entertaining than driving one's readers to mid-chapter hydroculture experimentation.

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