(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)
I did indeed like Angels and Demons enough to put it on my list of best books ever written. And that may shock some people — actually, that does shock a lot of people and I have heard that particular question many times. Usually a book is either good or popular. And that’s not an unusual differentiation to make about things. Popular music is rarely well written. Popular fiction is usually mindless drivel written by people who are looking for sensational reactions rather than depth of understanding. Popular art is usually something that makes people cringe rather than sit and stare at it. But there are exceptions and those exceptions, things that are able to be both popular and inspirational in a thoughtful sense are worthy of an even higher level of praise.
Truly good books need to teach us a lesson about language, a lesson about ethics, morality and spirituality and a lesson about the world. I’ve talked about this a little in the first post of this series but it’s useful to review sometimes.
Angels and Demons, the first of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series — realistically, popular thrillers set in contemporary time and mostly about an exploration of humanity and history. I should probably mention here that when I talk about a book that is in a series, I’m going to talk about the first book as something you should read and teach and hopefully you’ll enjoy it (and your students will, too) enough to follow that up with others in the series. That’s pretty much something that can be said for most authors’ work but it’s important when there is a continuation from book to book that we not jump into the middle of a set meant to be read in series and just confuse everyone because, perhaps, the fourth book is the best one and we’ve read them all anyway so nothing about it seems to come out of nowhere for us. Our students won’t have read the others already and neither will the friends who suddenly think we’re crazy because we like this particular book that happens to assume myriad pieces of knowledge that have been picked up through hundreds of pages in other volumes.
This book teaches us that you can make everyday language beautiful, make it tell a story that isn’t focused on the everyday and meaningless but a real story, that you can read and taste the beauty of without tripping over arcane words but without sacrificing anything of the experience.
It teaches us a moral and ethical lesson about the importance of balancing faith with understanding but that if you go too far in either direction you lose your humanity. And it teaches us a historical lesson that it is a horrible mistake to forget our past and pretend that dark tragedy is something that is only in the distant history or in other countries.
Of course, we have to be very careful about choosing a work of popular fiction when we are discussing academic literature. Why? Simply because most popular fiction is not written to be literature. It’s not written to be any good. It’s written to be easy to read, easy to understand, to appeal to a mass audience that, not to put too fine a point on it, is pretty stupid. And there is certainly a niche for that — a damned massive one, in fact. And I cannot in any way (nor should you) criticize people for writing for that demand.
There’s something to be said for trying to fix the mediocre education system and cultural degradation that has led to mass-market consumables, not just literature. But that’s a whole other discussion and we’re certainly not going to fix the problem by refusing to read or write books for people who can’t understand depth and symbolism and poetic language.
This book, though, manages to have inherently deep messages as I have said about humanity and its impact on itself, its ability to forget its past and pretend that culture is safe and tradition is good. But it does all of that without sacrificing the plot, the story, the desirability of the book itself for the kind of audience that is browsing airport bookshops. It doesn’t alienate the general public and doesn’t pander to a desire to have nothing but plot and mindless action (or even worse mindless day-to-day experience).
So on all counts, being a spectacular discussion of human nature, of history, of the future, of morality and ethics, not to mention continuing the story into several other books, which I shall likely discuss at another point, without losing either momentum or quality of ideas, this book more than merits a place on my short list of the best books ever written.
I would highly recommend you use this book if you are teaching a class in contemporary fiction, popular fiction or realistically any introductory or creative-writing-study course in literature.
It also has the benefit of being originally written in English, which isn’t necessarily the case for a lot of the other books that I’ve put on my list. Since many departments and schools are rather against books in translation existing outside books-in-translation courses, this is definitely a plus for Angels and Demons. By the way, I have no problem with segregating books based on their original language of composition but I have a massive problem with allowing people to only take courses of books that are originally in English as if books in all other languages are not worth studying unless you’re a foreign-lit specialist. That goes for you, too, high schools who have only English-original texts (sometimes supplemented by ancient Greek silliness that doesn’t deserve to be on anyone’s curriculum) in their courses.
Oh, right, the story. I tend not be nearly as interested in giving a plot summary as other book reviewers but I guess it’s useful in determining whether you or your students might find it sufficiently stimulating in the plot department. I should probably come clean and tell you that I have realistically no concern for plot when I’m reading. If the language is interesting, I’m hooked. But here’s the story.
Robert Langdon, the protagonist, is a liberal arts professor whose interest is in signs and symbols (realistically, in history but they never come out and say it as such). So he’s a scholar (woo!) and a scientist (great) and someone who thinks about things. Which is a great combination and excellent material to start any sort of discussion with students about why such people have a tendency of being seen as less-than in modern society. That aside, the book begins with a murder and a theft of, to leave out all the scientific details, something that will explode — and likely take out a good portion of the city. Not to mention this is all taking place in the Vatican between the death of the Pope and the election of a new one. In addition, the same person has kidnapped a group of the cardinals who are likely to become Pope and there are some obscure and historical symbolic references.
Langdon is tasked with figuring out who is behind all of this and help find the kidnapped cardinals. And yes, indeed, this is quite a task for an academic but that’s the premise of the book. I won’t go into the details of how the solution presents itself so you can read that for yourself (or look it up on Wikipedia) but the story is internally consistent, scientifically somewhat viable (far more than most popular fiction, honestly) and there are sufficiently many misleading trails to turn this into more of a mystery than a book of investigation and action.
There you have it. A story fit for cinema (which it was adapted for rather quickly) in language that is creative and intriguing enough to keep an educated person hoping the book is longer than it really is and with enough thoughts on human progress, history and ethics to make it a worthwhile read. Enjoy.
[Angels and Demons by Dan Brown on Amazon]