I loved The Da Vinci Code. I turned each page in a fever of excitement that excluded thoughts of the outside world. When done, I placed it on my bookshelf, weary with the fatigue that only a long book read at breakneck speed can brew. It sits there now, many years later, just where I left it. It’ll probably stay there, untouched, until I sell it secondhand or give it to a friend. And yet I have other books on that same shelf, books that I do reread year after year. Some of them, decade after decade.
I have an answer. At least, I have an answer that applies to me. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the book, as such. Dan Brown is a fine author (I like all his novels). It seems fashionable in some circles to shoot him down because he’s had enormous success. Good luck to him, I say. He earned that success.
There are many reasons for his popularity. The aforementioned page-turning fever of excitement is one. He’s a master of suspense, and plot twists, and a bunch of other things that I (and as it turns out, a few other people around the world) like.
So, why won’t I read The Da Vinci Code a second time? Is it because I already know what happens, where the plot twists are and how it all ends? I don’t think so. I know the same things about all the books I reread, and that doesn’t stop me.
I do think it’s part of the problem, although only a small part. Dan Brown relies on these things more than most authors. Suspense, thrills, twists and theme are the chief attractions of his books. Once these elements are taken away, there’s not that much left.
So, what is left to any book when those elements are taken away? In Dan Brown’s case – a simple prose style. Clear, efficient and similar to most other thrillers. How does this differ from the books I reread? These call me back by the sheer delight of their prose.
Good writing has a rhythm: each word, each sentence and each paragraph rings with music. It can lift me like poetry. It can bring goosebumps to my skin like a singer whose voice makes the air sweet. It can strike a chord in my heart like the glance of a girl across a crowded room. Good prose is a guide that leads me, step by step, without fault or jar, right into the heart of the story.
If a book has that, there’s something to fall back on when you already know what happens. Because while you’ll remember the details of the plot for a long time, the wording becomes fresh again in a matter of months. Prose of high quality works together with the story. Words, plot and character entwine and become one. Tolkien had that gift, and Ursula Le Guin, and David Eddings.
With some writers, the prose is a character, or it reflects the character’s dialogue so well that you don’t need to be told who’s speaking. There’s no mistaking Silk’s dialogue in The Belgariad: his deep intelligence, his dry wit, his bravado, the hidden but underlying depth of his feelings. All of these things drip from his every comment. It’s the same for Tolkien. He can convey a world of meaning by a simple name. Gollum. Moria. Mordor. Ithilien. You know who’s good or bad, what’s beautiful or fowl, just by the resonance of the name.
When prose, names, characters and story are one, there’s no limit to the number of times you can reread a book, because the reading is as much a pleasure as the story.