Codes and Codices
There is, today, a large body of popular fiction that tries to inject the excitement of the thriller into academic bibliography. I think it really began with Umberto Eco's brilliant novel, Foucault's Pendulum. (By the way, I saw a Foucault's Pendulum this week!) But it only really took off in the wake of the Da Vinci Code.
I think that by now it is possible to draw some conclusions about this genre. I want to comment on one, as a warning to others. My impression is that many of these books (or movies) stem from a desire on the part of the author, and perhaps the audience, to connect their learning and interest in the academic endeavour with things that are "really exciting".
And here lies the crux of the problem. What practical relevance can philological arcana ever have? Or, to put it differently, how can anyone get fabulously rich by being a scholar?
There are some easy solutions. One is the supernatural - knowledge matters because really, things are not as they seem. In Eco's book, he plays with this solution, flirts with it, but never lets it take over. Sometimes, even full-blown occultism can be weaved in with elegance. In less skilled hands, the supernatural solution is silly and off-putting.
The second is even less imaginative. It's all about money. What kind of money can book knowledge bring? Hidden treasure, of course. Duh. Though this tack also can be followed with elegance.
The third approach is most interesting, and it is really what Foucault's Pendulum is all about. The power that knowledge, or the belief that there is hidden knowledge out there, has over real lives. The Da Vinci Code attempted this, and certainly hit a nerve. But the story wasn't compelling enough, the mystery wasn't convincing enough.
But some of the books I have read recently fumble this one as well. Lev Grossman's Codex, for instance, runs into the ground with a contrived, boring family scandal. A few weeks ago I read Leslie Silbert's Elizabethan novel, the Intelligencer. Even after finishing the book, and puzzling over it for several days, I couldn't work out the criminal motivation driving the story. I think he wants the jade dragon. I don't know why. I don't really care.
[Update: This point is the utter downfall of The Third Translation. It gets off to a very promising start. But when the tension has risen to a climax, the possibility of arcane scholarship uncovering something new, powerful, exciting, of ancient texts being as true as they purport to be seems tangible - the author gives up. He just drops everything where it was and leaves.]
I enjoyed reading most of these books (though by no means all of them). I like reading about books. And, as I tried to suggest here, I think there is great potential in exploring the ways in which investigation of the past can influence the present. But it demands a little more imagination.