Roy Exum: Why ‘Inferno’ Is So Good

Sunday, June 30, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I believe that I have already read more books this summer than in any other year I can remember. While nobody is quite sure what disease I’ve been wrestling, the doctors are unanimous in the prescription I must sit quietly and rest. That’s something else I can never remember doing in my life.

But as a scholar named Thomas Kempis once declared, “I have sought for happiness everywhere but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book.” Kempis said that sometime between the years of 1380 and 1471 but, so help me, it is as true today as it has been for centuries and is probably the reason I have endured “resting” up until now.

The book of the year, of course, is “Inferno,”  the mesmerizing No. 1 best seller from the hands of Dan Brown, and it is everything a reader could have hoped it to be. Brown, who enlightened all of us with “The Da Vinci Code,” uses the literary classic “The Divine Comedy” by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) as his backdrop in “Inferno” and the result is an immeasurable joy.

But what was almost as fun to read was a brief question-and-answer piece with the 49-year-old novelist, who now ranks 20th on the list of the Best-Selling Authors of all time and has just written six books to get there! I am fascinated with the guy for obvious reasons – I like people to enjoy what I write – and I was enthralled by the fact Dan didn’t have TV growing up so he read for fun -- just like I used to do.

In a great piece in the New York Times he said his first “binge” reading experience was as a kid reading The Hardy Boys (I read ‘em all, too) and confided he dislikes horror books (I wouldn’t pick up a Steven King book either.) “When I was 15 I made the mistake of reading part of ‘The Exorcist’,” Brown said. “It was the first and last horror book I’ve ever read.”

So how did he start writing? He told the Times: “My earliest memory of being utterly transfixed by a book was Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” Halfway through the book, I remember my mom telling me it was time for bed and not being able to sleep because I was so deeply concerned for the safety of the characters. The next day, when I finished the book, I remember crying with relief that everything had worked out.

“The emotion startled me — in particular the depth of connection I felt toward these imaginary characters,” he explained, adding, “It was in that moment that I became aware of the magic of storytelling and the power of the printed word.”

The world-renowned author thinks a lot like I do when you want your story “to teach something about the real world.” Then Brown named three of my favorite books as examples. “Thrillers like “Coma,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “The Firm” all captivated me by providing glimpses into realms about which I knew very little — medical science, submarine technology and the law. To my taste, a great thriller must also contain at its core a thought-provoking ethical debate or moral dilemma.”

What makes Dan Brown so masterful is that he writes of classical art and ancient history – two subjects quite hazy on my limited horizon – in a way that has me scrambling to read Dante, looking at world maps, seeing how far Venice is from Rome, and tasks I’d never do if it weren’t for the best-seller in my lap.

As a writer, Dan Brown is today among the best in the world. So how do you think I felt when he was asked in the Q&A about his childhood and what he remembered in his youngest years? “I grew up surrounded by books. My sister and I made weekly trips to the Exeter Public Library and returned carrying armloads of our favorites — Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, “Curious George,” “Madeline” and “Babar.”

“As we got older,,” he said, “I remember my parents reading to us every night — “Make Way for Ducklings,” “The Velveteen Rabbit” and Maurice Sendak’s “Chicken Soup With Rice,” which I preferred to his entirely terrifying “Where the Wild Things Are” (the notion of a child’s bedroom transforming into a monster-infested jungle made it impossible to sleep).”

“The poetry of Ogden Nash was another staple in our household, which I believe contributed to my early love of wordplay and humor in writing,” he said to my utter delight. “On the more serious side, our bookshelves contained illustrated editions of Grimms’ fairy tales and Aesop’s Fables, which instilled in me at a very young age a clear sense of good and evil as well as the archetypal roles of heroes and villains.”

As I live and breathe, that describes the Exum household of the early ‘50s and ‘60s to an absolute tee! We read every one of those things, except for the “Where The Wild Things Are,” which I didn’t much know about until my kids came along.

And to just think: if I had studied classical art instead of shortstops and historical figures instead of shapely girls, I could be a world-class writer, too. Ah, “for all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest words of mouth and pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been’. (John Greenleaf Whittier)

Brown told the Times his favorite novelists are “John Steinbeck for his vivid sense of place. Robert Ludlum for the complexity of his plotting. And J. K. Rowling for inspiring so many young people to be passionate about reading.”

Oh, I just loved the interview. But I’m telling you to get the book. “”Inferno” by Dan Brown is breath-taking and has more twists and turns than the waterways of Venice, Italy, where you know that 118 small islands connected by canals and bridges are really what create the city itself.

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