“Dumbest Thing Ever”: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno

January 13, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 67 2 min read

coverI am on record, both in this magazine and in my local newspaper, as an enthusiastic defacer of books. Recently I had a new kind of marginal experience that I would like to share: the pleasure of joint, or (as they say in grad seminars) “dialogic” marginalia.

The book was Dan Brown’s Inferno. Like most writerers [sic], I am crazy about Dan Brown. Why does he write the way he does? Is he a sneaky genius? How is it possible that he was once in a writing seminar with David Foster Wallace? (One of my dreams is to write a hit Broadway musical about that seminar, in which Dan Brown strides around the stage wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches singing bombastic anthems about the great masterpieces of Europe while DFW sings introverted atonal fugues with mumbling sotto voce footnotes.)

I purchased and read Inferno, which was inscrutable and interminable, and as I read I scribbled in its margins. When I finished, my friend David Rees, the artisanal pencil sharpener, asked if he could borrow it. He added his thoughts.

It was fun to see someone else’s words next to mine. I wrote in black pen, in cursive. David wrote in red pencil, in block letters. I was semi-serious. David swore and told a lot of jokes. Usually we agreed, but occasionally we disagreed. Here are some of the highlights.

WARNING: There are probably Dan Brown spoilers here, but come on, seriously.

Very early in Inferno, I realized that Dan Brown’s career-long fetish for ellipses had reached a whole new level. Basically, ellipses are the hero of the book. They make their first appearance on the dedication page.

After a while I started trying to circle all of them, which became a meditative exercise.

Sometimes I would miss one and David would catch it for me.

We spent most of our time in the margins making fun of Dan Brown.

We mocked his pacing,

his dialogue,

his dialect,

his artless exposition,

his anti-powers of description,

his careless repetitions,

his weak grasp of human behavior,

his lust for fame,

his characters’ gender stereotypes,

his implausible plot points,

and probably the worst “academic” lecture in the history of fiction.

Along the way, we managed to isolate the keywords of the Dan Brown lexicon.

Sometimes David added illustrations.

Usually, David and I agreed.

But sometimes we didn’t.

Recently I passed the book to another friend, who will add her marginal notes, and then I will pass it to someone else, and then someone else, and on and on until eventually we have written more words in Dan Brown’s book than Dan Brown himself. This seems like the only way to tame the monster at the heart of the Inferno.

is the New York Times Magazine's Critic at Large. He is writing a book about Oklahoma City.


  1. For the last few years, I’ve been telling people that “Angels and Demons” is the trashiest book I’ve ever read (no small achievement). It’s nice to know that Brown has persisted with his style of banality, incredulity and ponderous literary/historical scavenging – without actually having to read his books!

  2. So instead of spending your time, money, and energy on, say, a terrific yet under-the-radar writer, you purchased Dan Brown’s latest book, read it, made “amusing” comments in the margins, and then wrote an article with the revolutionary premise that Dan Brown is a shitty writer. (If I had been able to write a snarky comment in this essay’s margins, it would have been: Thanks for this invaluable and thought-provoking cultural contribution!)

    There is something terribly depressing in this image of the literary intelligentsia sitting on their thrones and ironically reading bad books. Come on, Sam and Dave, don’t give up on literature just yet!

  3. While we’re on the subject of poor writing, please let me edit out the word “basically” from this margin note: “I basically haven’t been able to picture anything he’s described.” Thank you.

  4. My friends and I did this in high school with some kind of series aimed at teen girls that revolved around cheerleaders. If you were fourth or fifth in line to read you would cry with laughter all the way through.

  5. Every time I read the banal comments about my own writing, I look at reviews for Dan Brown. And I rage, “How did this man get published and all I get are rejections and criticism about my cliches and grammar errors. Of course, having a sane and dependable proof reader and an editor would help those things… but they also stop my books from being professionally published. How does Brown do It? And how can I convince his readers my stories are at least moderately better?

  6. This article, while not revolutionary, serves a similar purpose as Brown’s novels. I was much more entertained by this than I was ‘Angels and Demons’ and ‘The DaVinci Code,’ particularly David’s “EAT SHIT” annotation.

  7. For 20 years I worked at a publishing house that makes recorded books, and I learned more from about good writing from hearing books read out loud than I did getting a BA in English. And O! Does this piece remind me of those days! We had no choice but to read these things and margin-comments were our way of relieving the agony. What we figured out is that anybody could get anything published if they are persistent enough (and this was in the days before self-publishing on a massive scale.)

    I think most people just scan and miss the silliness of so much writing and therefore don’t understand what we’re making a big deal about. I often feel like I’m speaking a different language when I discuss actual quality of writing, even with people who love reading, so I get comfort from stories like these!

    And Shannon, it also comforts me to know that there are high school kids care too.

  8. Our favorite person to pick on, btw, was Piers Anthony. There are some people in my city that very seriously wish he’d die so he won’t write more books.

  9. @Zach. No you can’t. Just go and pick up Infinite Jest next time you’re in a book store and think about what you wrote.

  10. First off, great read, I love this kind of MST3K approach to glossing works, hope to see more of it in the future.

    Secondly, I thought I’d repost my comment from a reddit discussion going on about this very article. It took me much longer than I planned on investing in it, and I would hate to see all that effort potentially buried under what I can only expect to be a torrent of downvotes.

    My response:
    People have problems with Dan Brown’s writing because he so consistently and persistently ‘gets it wrong’. And people who do care about things like characterization, plausibility, and intelligent prose are going to have problems with his writing. Most just shrug and look the other way, but others are genuinely concerned that something with so many issues can achieve such unparalleled success.

    I don’t personally think it’s a problem to read Dan Brown, and I take issue to people who say “Don’t read this book because it’s bad”, but the problem is when people start throwing all these nonsensical adjectives praising Dan Brown. I have a BA and an MA in English Lit, so I guess it’s fair to say I can easily be chucked in with the book snobs of this world, and though I will admit I’ve read all of Brown’s works for fun, I cannot concede that either his writing style or his books have any value beyond being an in-flight read. At very least his prose is terribly sloppy, to say nothing of his blatant disregard for coherent characterization. A sentence like “Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly–a field of red emblazoned with the ancient symbols of the crescent and star–vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, still flying proudly in the modern world” shouldn’t have made it past the first draft stage, much less made it past the editor. As the article above points out, it’s a repetition for starters (we get that the flag is fluttering), but the big problem for a grammarian like me is this:

    The antecedents of “vestiges” are “the ancient symbols of the crescent and star”, but since these two terms appear in the parenthetical phrase “a field of red…”, this means they don’t function as part of the grammar of the sentence. So what we really have written here is “Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly, vestiges of the Ottoman Empire…” HUH? The ‘flag is vestiges’? Grammatically that’s nonsense. Ok, so the control tower with the flag are vestiges of the Ottoman Empire? That doesn’t make any logical sense, a control tower is not a vestige of the Ottoman Empire. So clearly he meant the ancient symbols are vestiges, but his awkward and broken syntax has rendered the statement illogical and grammatically incorrect.

    Doing this once would be fine, but Dan Brown does this a lot, and then makes a lot of money for this kind of writing. But this is his profession. It’s his job (if not to get this right, then at least to try. It’s not like it’s his shtick to flaunt the flaunt the rules of grammar and syntax, if it was I would shut up). If a factory worker messed up like this, and did so consistently, we might not fire them, sure, but we certainly wouldn’t be giving them a massive raise and calling them one of the best workers in the field. Or, if we did, a lot of his fellow workers (and perhaps even a few laymen) might start to wonder just what the hell some people were thinking, and they might take to a forum (like the internet) to express those valid concerns. But again, that doesn’t mean Dan Brown shouldn’t be read, or even enjoyed; people can do whatever they want. But the problems with his prose are alone the reasons why his works will never be compared favorably to Moby Dick.

    TL;DR English major tries to explain a potential reason why people take issue with Dan Brown’s writings.

  11. Frankly, the writer sounds like a little bitch, but maybe that’s just me. Like Brown’s writing or not, there has to be better things to do with one’s time.

  12. @Sly

    Infinite Jest is unimpeachable in its totality (and one of the few books I love with no reservation), but Broom of the System has room in the margins for no little snark. It’s the kind of freshman work that should have stayed in a drawer–not because it’s so bad, but because it’s the clearly underdeveloped work of someone whose later talent renders it disappointing in retrospect. Plus there is some real boring shit in it.

    Anyway. Writing about Dan Brown on the Millions is like showing a latter-day Adam Sandler vacation home movie at Cannes. Yes, he is a writer of books, and this is a website about books, and there ends the common ground.

  13. What if I wanted to read Dan Brown’s book to learn about history in a fun setting? All the facts in his books are verifiable (especially in the day and age of all mighty Google) so what’s wrong with that?

  14. DB’s writing is dumb and boring and he doesn’t develop any interesting ideas that are clearly his own. The only thing that makes him of interest to me is that he raises the question of what publishers are looking for and why. Once in a while no-talent hacks rise to fame and fortune for no good reason, they just happened to know somebody and show up on the right day.

  15. @Rastaman426

    Reading Dan Brown to learn about history is like those people who read sparknotes on classics so they appear to be well-read. Besides, that’s what Dan Brown does. He skims the surface of history looking for little anecdotes he can adapt into a story or simply boring filler to boost his word count. There are some entertaining history and autobiographical texts by real historians or influential people. You’re better off learning and being entertained by first-handers and people who actually know what they’re talking about. Perfect example: Guns, Germs, and Steel.

  16. And yet, Dan Brown has made way more $ than the author of this article. Oh, and people have heard of Dan Brown’s name whereas nobody knows who ‘Sam Anderson’ is. Lol.

  17. We have three dogs named (from left to right) Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Hardy Boys. Thanks for giving them a shout out on the DEATH MASK page. They’re great dogs and they are not fans of Dan Brown either.

  18. some seriously dickish comments here. i liked brown as a child, but recently listened to Inferno on a long road trip. rolled my eyes so much it was a driving hazard.

  19. Thank you for so humorously capturing the ridiculousness of this book! Will you please do The Lost Symbol, too? There are so many great moments in that one, from the breathless students in his Harvard lectures to the female character that he uses every synonym for “fat” to describe any time she appears.

  20. I feel so validated. For my community college Creative Writing final, I used to make my freshmen and sophomores read the first chapter of the DaVinci Code and tell me why it was crap. Now I do it with Stefani Meyer’s Twilight. Thank you for writing this.

  21. “And yet, Dan Brown has made way more $ than the author of this article. Oh, and people have heard of Dan Brown’s name whereas nobody knows who ‘Sam Anderson’ is. Lol.”

    Well, that settles it then. Brown’s books have made him very rich. He must be right and Anderson must be wrong, because we all know that money is the final determination of literary quality.

    Move along people.

    Nothing else to see here.

  22. Both hilarious and sad. The latter, because there are so many writers out there who can write much better than this but do not get to make even a small percent of Brown’s millions. It makes you sad for what this means for our culture, our humanity….. (ellipsis intended).

  23. @weasel soup:

    I haven’t read 50 Shades, but, in 2012, I did come across this hilarious blog where the blogger did a close reading of them, chapter by chapter, and blogged her thoughts. I found her posts very entertaining and wonder if they might sell more if made into a book. But, that’s not likely to happen, sadly.


    You’ll have to browse through using her labels / categories as it’s not easy to find the posts chronologically.

    Apparently, there have been similar deconstructions of the Twilight books online too, though I haven’ read those.

  24. @Ryan Ries

    So instead of spending your time, money, and energy on, say, a terrific yet under-the-radar writer, you purchased Dan Brown’s latest book, read it, made “amusing” comments in the margins, and then wrote an article with the revolutionary premise that Dan Brown is a shitty writer. (If I had been able to write a snarky comment in this essay’s margins, it would have been: Thanks for this invaluable and thought-provoking cultural contribution!)

    There is something terribly depressing in this image of the literary intelligentsia sitting on their thrones and ironically reading bad books. Come on, Sam and Dave, don’t give up on literature just yet!

    LITERATURE!!! ;__;

  25. Yeah, you guys! Why do you have to be so negative? Can’t you be more positive? Okay, so you don’t enjoy Mr. Brown’s writing. Well, lots and lots of people DO enjoy it! They can’t all be wrong, can they? So why don’t you guys write about a book that you DO love instead of one that you DON’T love. Then SHARE that love with all of US, so that we can all enjoy that love, TOGETHER!

    If you did that, it would be a really beautiful thing.

  26. Chemondelay

    Yes, don’t give up on literature, as in, don’t waste your time on lazy, lowest-hanging-fruit essays like this and instead challenge yourself to find and celebrate a real piece of art.

  27. Seriously, this hit Broadway musical idea of yours sounds amazingly spectacular and I highly encourage you to do it.

  28. LOL Good work The Millions! Spoiler Alert: Dan Brown’s next book is a “Choose Your Own Ending” (remember those) published by Scholastic and sold to unsuspecting middle schoolers….

  29. Having gotten over my initial mirth, I am now wondering, rather glumly, about the publishers and editors who allowed so many glaring issues to see the light of day. I mean, really, didn’t someone at Doubleday say, sure, it’s bestselling Dan Brown, but, you know, let’s have someone read the thing before it goes to print. Or, did they just decide that there would be plenty of readers who wouldn’t care for decent writing, so, why bother? Either way, shouldn’t these careless publishers and editors be held just as responsible as the writer for inflicting this stuff on the reading public?

    Someone should get a Doubleday rep on the phone/email/Twitter, present them with this marginalia and at least pose the question.

  30. @haints

    “They can’t all be wrong, can they?”

    YES. They can. They are. They will be. Just because one knows how to read, doesn’t mean one need be thoughtful or even smart. Reading well, however, reading with even a smidgen of critical input, reading with the responsibility to complete the circle of the story that the writer has started—doing this takes more than scanning words with the same attention one gives to a Sharper Image catalog or a copy of Varmint Hunter.

    This is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long while. And reading humorous takedowns of prose we know is bad often does more good for me as a writer than reading a good story. I know, it shouldn’t be this way, but by the end of the piece I was thinking that a great craft book could be entitled ‘Just Don’t(…)” – then it could be filled with DB excerpts (and zillions of other authors) and the red and black marginalia from this wonderful duo. Over many years of reading accepted good writing, arguably passable writing, and certain bad writing, I often revisit my own work most effectively and with more confidence (less vitriolic self-criticism?) after reading first-draft-unedited-but-shockingly-published stinky garbage like Dan Brown.

    To know you might have a chance of penning a better than average story, a story that might have some legs, a story that proves you have more talent than Dan Brown or your other favorite ham-handed typer, you only have to read his line, ‘Apparently a background in drama could be a versatile weapon.’ If you read that with your mouth full and you don’t choke on your food with a gut laugh and think ‘Holy shitballs, my cat writes better than that when she runs across the keyboard,’ then you haven’t a chance on earth.

    Thanks, guys. This was a gas.

    PS – @Ryan Ries – I’m pretty darn sure Sam and David didn’t make “amusing” comments. They made amusing comments.

  31. But, there is such a thing as paroxysmal positional vertigo. I have no idea what the book is about…..is it still dumb even though this is a real condition? Not defending the book in any way.

  32. Would have enjoyed The Da Vinci Code SO much more if I’d taken this approach. Instead I just cursed all the way through.

  33. What an indulgent prat Dan Brown has proved to be – I just finished reading – no sorry, skimming, this ridiculous book and I wanted to post a reflection of my anger and sheer frustration that this nonsense could actually be published – shame on the publishers, shame on the editors – you have sold your souls for a few unworthy shekels. Shame on you.

  34. Ah, Mark, my comment was intended as a satire. I liked this piece and was making fun of the “why can’t you just say something positive?” people.

  35. However we have been able to create a fantastic tour of Florence based on the Dan Brown’s novel :-)

  36. I don’t find it ironic that the majority of those who trash Dan Browns novels online are the same people who spend most of their time facebooking, blogging and twittering strangers online also.
    They spend so much time twittering about themselves, they cringe at the prospect of celebrating someone else.
    Celebrating someone who’s genuinely successful.

    To enjoy Dan Brown, you need to have a reasonable attention span and at least an above average grip of the English written word.

  37. In medical school we had a saying “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”. I guess in this case it should be “those who can, write books that sell, those who can’t, make fun of those who can”

  38. “In medical school we had a saying “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”. I guess in this case it should be “those who can, write books that sell, those who can’t, make fun of those who can””

    Right, because the only way to truly judge the quality of a work is by how much it sells. That’s is why Van Gogh sucked while he was alive, and then suddenly got really great after he died …

    Yet another example that a medical degree is no guarantee of intelligence …

  39. Sir!

    Per my recent Tweetage, https://twitter.com/MamurphyMaureen/status/498867059980525569 I am Outraged and full of Umbrage that the great name of Mr. Dan Brown has been so sorely maligned by you and that Malignant Sharpener of Pencils.

    What next, an attack on the Modern Prophetess of Human Improvement, Amy Chua? My Faithful Biographer Moe Murph will be regularly reporting back to me on the Outrageous Stream of Verbiage and the Attendant Most Impertinent Comments.

    Sir, were I but yet Corporeal and not a being afloat on the Etheric Twitter Cloud, I would thrash you both soundly.


    Senator Kefuaver F. Tutwiller, IV (1823-1913)
    Etheric Twitter Cloud

  40. Book? Inferno isn’t a book, it’s an infomercial cobbled together by the makers of tweed jackets and gin.

  41. I just finished reading the book and I found the story enjoyable. I guess I read for an enjoyable story rather than a literary orgasm. I also don’t have a B.A. in English so I don’t pick apart his writing. After seeing your margin notes though I can completely understand where you are coming from. Especially the bit about how you had trouble imagining whatever he was trying to explain. At times I’d just Google the damn thing. Other than that, the flaws went right over my head.

    I figure it is a lot like painting. When I see a painting it is either ugly or beautiful, but to an artist they see every brush stroke, colour, technique, etc. and then make their judgement.

    A lot of his success did come from how “controversial” his second book was. Since then everyone will pick up whatever he writes now and he doesn’t even have to try.

    Since Dan Brown is forever ruined for me and I am amongst literary scholars, enlighten me to a well written thriller with a good story. :) I’d appreciate it!

  42. I just love the pompous BS you hear form the “intellectual” elite. If you were so perfect and incredible a writer, I would assume it would be you and your friend who were making millions of dollars “entertaining” the masses.

    You are entitled to your opinions of course, as such perfect writers you both are in your own minds. However, I don’t think many people really care what your opinion is at all. I know I certainly do not (chuckle, chuckle “…”).

  43. Well, well. look at my typo in my previous response. Guess I’ll get ton of crap about that. Oh well.

  44. TO WES – RE: “Since Dan Brown is forever ruined for me and I am amongst literary scholars, enlighten me to a well written thriller with a good story. :) I’d appreciate it!”

    Hi Wes, just noticed this. Sir, you have a wry and funny natural writing voice and I would vouchsafe that many of the “literary scholars” are not as sly and witty as you, so please do not undersell yourself! Given the damage that has been done by our silly comments, may I offer some suggestions below:

    a.) The Manchurian Candidate – Richard Condon

    b.) The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John le Carre (accent missing)

    c.) The World At Night – Alan Furst (Note: Mid-90’s — I am not that familiar with author but many good words from other readers)

    d.) The Third Man and other Stories – Graham Green (The Master — God, what a writer)

    e.) Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith (Wonderful, best of the “Renko” series)

    f.) Lee Child – “The Killing Floor” (Lee Child, Lee Child, unstoppable force, who has addicted every member of the Murphy family. I am ashamed to say I haven’t read him yet and at Thanksgiving, the entire family shook their heads and sighed)

    Hope you enjoy!

    Moe Murph

  45. Only really, really stupid people–and by that I mean people like you Thomas–equate popularity with quality.

  46. This article made me chuckle. I have never tried to read Brown’s more famous works – I’ve only read ~1/3 the way through Deception Point, at which time my incredulity at the “science” he proposed (I am a professional researcher in the geosciences and get to work a lot with aerospace engineers) in his book, and prefaced it with something to the effect of “all of the technology in this book is possible and real”, caused me to put the damn thing down and never pick it up again. Zero desire. It was just so goddamn bogus. It remains one of three fiction books I have never finished reading, nor do I plan to.
    It just wasn’t enjoyable, because it wasn’t believable. This coming from a guy who loves fantasy and sci-fi; for whom suspension of disbelief comes easily. I think maybe you can have a shitty plot, but good writing, or a good plot, and shitty writing, but not both. Maybe the success of bad literature lies in the combination of mediocre plot + shitty writing (+/- controversy?). Perhaps that’s the sweet spot.

  47. I have read all but the latest of Dan Brown’s books and must admit that I enjoyed most of them. Like it or not, he writes books that people read. Recently, I stopped reading a “well-written” book less than half-way through because it bored the hell out of me. I just finished Brown’s first book, Digital Fortress–a complete mess. The mystery here is how this one got published at all. Bad books by established authors are nothing new, but this was his first novel. Who did he have to blow to get it on the market? I want his name and number, because I have a book that’s nearly as bad and going nowhere.

  48. the obvious seems to have escaped everyone including the publisher of the book and the producer of the movie, maybe even Dan Brown himself, that in the end there really is no book or movie here at all other than the usual travelogue of historical places in Italy. Because if the villain wanted to release this on the world he simply would have done it and THEN announced it if he needed his hubris satisfied. It’s not like he’s Blofeld holding the world for ransom. The book is maybe a bit less pitiful, because it turns out the villain released it a week before he said it would, and it was “only” to sterilize a third of the world’s population. Either way it strains credulity to anyone who even thinks once (much less twice) about the plot.

  49. I get that the book is not scientifically accurate and is lacking description wise, but I honestly quite like the storyline. If you skim read the whole thing you don’t really notice the flaws and it becomes quite enjoyable.

  50. If you can do better…why haven’t you????
    I’d rather be a multi millionaire “banal” writer…than a bitter, complainer….aka you😘

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