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'Da Vinci Code' sets a record, inspires a genre

By Ron CharlesBook editor / March 19, 2004



If Jesus were traded on the Big Board, his stock would be rising this year. While Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" has earned more than $250 million, Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" celebrates a phenomenal first anniversary this week. The publisher claims it's "the bestselling adult novel of all time within a one-year period."

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Doubleday, a division of Random House, announced Thursday that after 53 printings - including 14 consecutive weeks in first place on The New York Times bestseller list - there are 6.8 million copies in print.

Equal parts thriller, mystery, and religious speculation, "The Da Vinci Code" involves a panicked search for clues that will unlock long suppressed secrets of Jesus' life and the true nature of Christianity. The plot wraps in the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, masonic history, and the Holy Grail. The central character is Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of symbology who first appeared in Brown's "Angels and Demons," a 2000 novel with mediocre sales. Since "The Da Vinci Code," however, "Angels and Demons" has shot to the top of the paperback bestseller list.

For a year now, booksellers have watched Brown's novels work magic reminiscent of "Harry Potter." Kathi Kirby, purchasing manager for Powells Books, the world's largest independent bookstore, says, "It's had legs like you wouldn't believe. We're selling 100 to 200 a week - and we don't discount!"

None of this surprises scholars and editors who keep tabs on American culture and reading habits. Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, recently published a book called "American Jesus." To him, the success of "The Da Vinci Code" fits an old pattern in the United States. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the title of the Prothero book.]

"It taps into a lot of longstanding stories about Jesus in America," he said from his home in East Sandwich, Mass. "Americans have been ruminating since the Colonial period about finding documents that would settle all the mysteries about Jesus."

"One thing that makes people so interested in Jesus is that we don't have the answers. We've got these Gospels, but there's a lot of unanswered questions."

Dr. Prothero also notes that, contrary to America's secular reputation, books about Jesus often sell well in the US. Two of the bestselling novels of the 1920s were about Jesus.

Lynn Garrett, religion editor for Publisher's Weekly, says, "People may not be reading the Bible, but they want to read about the Bible."

Speaking from her office in Evanston, Ill., Ms. Garrett points out that the novel's success has produced what's called "the Da Vinci Code effect." "Books on the Knights Templars, books on the Holy Grail, books on gnosticism have really taken off over the last year because of 'The Da Vinci Code,' " she says. "It's revived a lot of backlist titles, either because Brown mentioned the books themselves or because he mentioned the topics."

Part of the Da Vinci Code effect includes a number of critical books from evangelical and Catholic publishers. Titles like "Breaking the Da Vinci Code" and "Secrets of the Code" hope to debunk the novel or help readers separate fact from fiction about Jesus' life.

Prothero sees the anticlerical theme of Brown's novel as one explanation for its success.

" 'The Da Vinci Code' participates in the 'religion-bad, spirituality-good' model in America," he says. "It provides a way to be spiritual while tapping into your suspicions about the Church."

Ms. Garrett agrees. "Americans are a religious people, but they're suspicious of institutional religion, which, given our history, is not surprising."

More pop-culture attention to Jesus won't be surprising, either. Sony Pictures reportedly paid $6 million for the rights to "The Da Vinci Code." The movie, slated for release next year, reunites Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Akiva Goldsman, the creative trio behind the Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind."

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