Two months ago, a bowl sold at auction for $2,225,000. It is an unremarkable bowl in some ways: Only five inches in diameter, to the untrained eye it looks like the kind of vessel that would contain lemon drops on a grandmother's coffee table. Fortunately, there are trained eyes. It is actually a rare, thousand-year-old specimen of pottery from the Song dynasty in China. The person who sold it had bought it for $3 at a yard sale in 2007.
The bowl also tidily contains one of our most romantic cultural obsessions: What seems worthless may be worth something; what seems without history may contain far more than we previously knew. This is why we are glued to Pawn Stars. (Perhaps this violin I found is a Stradivarius? Isn't that Harry Houdini's straitjacket?) This is why thousands of people, many of whom hope to have discovered their own notable candy dish, flock to tapings of Antiques Roadshow.
And it's also one of the reasons we read Dan Brown. There are others – his potato-chip chapters; his hazily mystical combination of history, religion and futurism; his gleefully bad bad guys; and his ruffled hero, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon. But the real thrill lies in the idea that around every corner – or in every painting or structure or artifact – are clues to a secret history far richer than the one we think we know.
He is our patron saint of secular spirituality. Through him, almost anything is possible, and anything can have meaning. Brown's central argument is that there's more than meets even the well-trained eye, and that we can all access stories more interesting than the ones with which we're already familiar.
In The Da Vinci Code, the Mona Lisa isn't really a painting of Lisa del Giacondo but rather of an androgynous figure whose name is an anagram of Amon L'Isa, combining the male and female Egyptian gods of fertility. In The Lost Symbol, we discover that the spare U.S. dollar bill floating around in our wallets actually contains a Masonic pyramid crowned by an "all-seeing eye."
And midway through Brown's new novel, Inferno (which is a hell of a lot of fun), Langdon and Sienna Brooks, his young and attractive female sidekick, discover (spoiler alert) the purloined death mask of Dante Alighieri. And it contains a secret code!
Langdon feels the "familiar thrill of imminent revelation," which we recognize as that moment right before the appraiser speaks on Roadshow. Eventually they wipe the back of the mask, revealing yet another secret, this time a spiralling poem based partly on The Divine Comedy. (For those interested in reading the source material, Clive James's new translation is exceptional.)
And that's where things get especially dark, which is the other reason we read Dan Brown.
In Angels & Demons, we chased down the shadowy Illuminati. In The Da Vinci Code we reckoned with a twisted version of the Catholic Church, much to the Vatican's consternation.
In The Lost Symbol – well, it's hard to say what particular evil coursed through the veins of that ungainly beast of a book, but it had something to do with a Freemason conspiracy.
In this new adventure, Langdon tries to save the world from a man named Bertrand Zobrist, who, concerned about Earth's overpopulation crisis, plans to cull the herd by unleashing a plague of his own engineering. (This is a very au courant concern: Zobrist is essentially a more zealous version of Walter Berglund from Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.)
Death masks, madmen scientists, rogue factions, secret societies: These are the projections of a deeply cynical, and deeply mistrustful, society. We fear each other, we fear those in charge, and (often with good reason) we suspect everyone of being up to some nasty thing or other.
Brown lets us revel in that – and lets the good guy win. It's fantasy on a grand scale, a global stage on which we act out our greatest anxieties.
He is a carnival barker of darkness, the stranger on the street using too many adverbs to tell us that the things we fear the most – that our governments will betray us, our institutions are broken, our faiths are bankrupt, our world will end – are not only happening, but will happen all over again in three or four years, precisely timed to the release of the new Dan Brown book.
To be clear, Brown is not a gifted sentence-maker. His characters are hilariously one-dimensional, and his dialogue is as vacant as the holes in his plots.
But he is one of the major novelists of our age because he brilliantly manipulates our desire for meaning, for mystery – quite simply, for more than we have.
But also because he manipulates our fears. His books – flawed, silly and addictive – give us an essential licence: For a handful of hours, we can convince ourselves that things are just as bad as they seem.