Sep 17, 2019
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Status of popular literature as art: dubious

ONE OF THE first events at next week’s Veritas Forum is a talk by Honora Chapman on “The Da Vinci Code” at 3 p.m. in the Alice Peters Auditorium. I don’t know exactly what she’s going to say about it, but it’s about time somebody talked about this miserable book.

I was terribly offended when I read “The Da Vinci Code,” but not because it challenged my Christian beliefs or mesmerized me with its cheap puzzles.

I was offended because it’s just a movie script parading as a piece of literature.

It’s supermarket trash, and your professors might actually be assigning it as reading material.

Real literature offers some reflection on real life. Even science-fiction by Asimov or Vonnegut can tell us something about real life, because those writers try to work out issues that are important to all people.

Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” for all its talk of sand worms and witches, actually confronts issues of death, knowledge and leadership in a way that many men and women who are young at heart are actually eager to read.

In older times people would read “The Iliad” or “Orlando Furioso” with the same sense of excitement that we now watch “Star Wars” or “The Lord of the Rings.”

Here’s what “The Da Vinci Code” does: it introduces us to a dusty, old idea about conspiracies within the Catholic Church and then dresses it up with a fairly dull murder mystery.

There is no character development, no meaningful dialogue, no lesson to be learned. It’s a waste of your time.

But can books really be a waste of time? Is it better to just read nothing than to read “The Da Vinci Code?”

To both questions, I answer yes. Bad books actually exist, which means there are other books that are actually good, books you should be spending your time reading.

Why on earth would you bother with “Harry Potter” when you can read “The Lord of the Rings,” which is much better fantasy with one or two fairly complex characters.

Why would you bother reading “Tuesdays With Morrie” when you can read “The Brothers Karamazov,” which is a much better “young man / old man” novel and arguably one of the greatest books ever written.

One argument you might put forward is that classic books are hard to read. You’re wrong. Most works of classic literature are fairly easy to read.

There have been a few eras in history where obscurity was highly valued, and it resulted in terribly difficult masterpieces like Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but most great literature prizes itself on its clarity.

But, you say, the subject matter of classic books is so far removed from our time that we really have nothing to learn from them. Also wrong.

All the constants of humanity — love and hate, politics and religion, war and peace — are just as present today as they were thousands of years ago.

Your ability to learn from a book, your ability to experience humanity through written text, is dependent upon your ability to appreciate these constants. If a work just doesn’t connect with you, it’s not the book’s fault.

So why do people keep buying trash if great books are still available?

This is the question that keeps me up nights, but I think it comes down to this: we, as a culture, don’t want to experience humanity.

Give us anything, we say. Give us conspiracy, give us zombies, give us murder, give us apocalypse, but please don’t give us humanity.

We can look into the faces of murderers, but we can’t stand to look into the faces of our neighbors.

So there’s my rant. I don’t know exactly what Chapman will have to say about the book, but having had a class with her before I’m sure it will be fascinating.

The Veritas Forum will have a lot of people arguing about truth and humanity next week, which is surprisingly rare on our campus, and I encourage everyone who has a free hour to check out one of the talks between classes or even to stick around for some of the talks and debates in the evening. I’ll see you there.

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