A Colonial Time Capsule

In 1795, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere placed a box under the foundation of the new Massachusetts State House.  On Tuesday, that box was opened — very carefully.

Inside, a conservator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts found five folded newspapers, two dozen coins including a “Pine Tree Schilling” from 1652, a George Washington medal, a Massachusetts seal, and a silver plate made for the occasion by ace silversmith Paul Revere himself.  Even cooler, the silver plate has visible fingerprints on it . . . presumably those of the man whose famous midnight ride warned colonists that “the British are coming” and helped trigger the American Revolution.

Although news reports describe the box as a time capsule, technically that is not correct because time capsules are designed to be opened at a particular date — usually, a century or two later.  Instead, the box is part of a much more ancient tradition of putting material in the foundation of building.  That practice dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and, over the centuries, has been employed in the construction of colossal medieval cathedrals and, more recently, been adopted by fraternal organizations like the Masons.

Indeed, in 1793 George Washington laid such a ceremonial cornerstone in the foundation of the U.S. Capitol building.  That ceremonial cornerstone has never been found and its contents are unknown — although I’m guessing it has played a role in a Dan Brown-type novel or a Nicholas Cage movie.

The Lost Symbol

Although my reading taste typically runs to non-fiction, occasionally I like to dip my toe into popular fiction.  That is how I came to read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.  It probably is the last time I read a fiction bestseller without a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader.

I had read The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and I didn’t think either of them was particularly compelling, so I probably should have passed on The Lost Symbol.  My rule, though, is that once I start to read a book I am obligated to finish it.  Therefore, after I started The Lost Symbol, I soldiered on to the end.  It didn’t take long for it to become a struggle.  I think part of the problem, for me, is that I just don’t care for the “thriller” genre, where the hero possesses an improbable combination of immediate knowledge and skills and events unfold at breakneck speed.  I think The Lost Symbol describes the period of about 24 hours, and for most of the book the characters are racing from place to place in Washington, D.C., all the time having meaningful expository or puzzle-solving conversations.  We are taken from the Capitol to the Library of Congress Reading Room to the National Cathedral to various other D.C. landmarks, and in each location we learn in weird, often extraneous detail about its construction, symbology and Masonic influences.

The writing and plotting seemed very pedestrian to me.  We have the athletic, able-to-immediately-call-to-mind-encyclopedic-knowledge academic who can promptly identify obscure symbols and paintings, remember the makeup of buildings, and recall the various teachings of ancient brotherhoods.  We have the brainy female scientist from the rich family of brainy public servants who is on the threshold of a great discovery.  We have the shadowy government figure, the mysterious brotherhood whose members occupy virtually every powerful position in the country, and the ultra-capable villain who overcomes every obstacle but then is stupidly tricked at the end.  Each of these figures had their one character trait that differentiates them from the masses of cardboard cutouts.  Academic?  Claustrophobic — check.  Scientist?  Motivated by desire to stay up with her brilliant brother — check.  Government figure?  Ball-busting and intimidating despite her small stature — check.  Helpful priest?  Blind — check.  Villain?  Tattooed and sadistic — check.

I frankly thought the identity of a the villain was totally predictable.  Whenever a supposedly dead person is described as “beyond recognition” — be it burned beyond recognition, beaten beyond recognition, crushed beyond recognition, dropped in a vat of acid and fried beyond recognition — my suspicions are raised.  Show me the body!  And in this case, I don’t understand why the villain wanted to kill the scientist or destroy her ground-breaking experiments; it seemed completely extraneous to his goal to find the secret knowledge that would give him unimaginable power.  Finally, when I saw that the book was about the Masons, I groaned inwardly.  Like Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark after he looks down into the Well of the Souls and sees by torchlight a writhing mass of asps, my reaction when I see the Masonic Order in a novel is to roll over on my back and groan:  “The Masons!  Why does it always have to be the Masons?!”

As I read the book I began to notice the verb choice in each sentence, which is a pretty good indicator of less than stellar writing and plotting.  In this book, everyone seems to be striding to and fro. No one moseys, or saunters, or sidles, or even just walks.  I also hate it when characters talk to themselves in italics.  Did I just see that wall move? It is almost as annoying as the decision to print every statement by Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany in capital letters, LIKE HE WAS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME.  Ugh.

So, I can’t recommend The Lost Symbol.  I am sure there are good thrillers based in Washington, D.C., but this isn’t one of them.

Turn The Page

Here’s an interesting story that reports that the top-selling item on Amazon.com is the Kindle version of Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol. It makes me wonder whether we are on the cusp of one of the increasingly common, but nevertheless radical, changes in the technology of how we receive information or otherwise entertain ourselves — like when American culture transitioned from albums to CDs, from Walkmen to Ipods, or from VHS tapes to DVDs.

As more and more people become accustomed to reading documents on computer screens, inevitably they will become more inclined to use devices like the Kindle which allow them to get new reading material more cheaply and immediately than going out and buying a book or reserving it at the library. Only old fogies like me will continue to prefer books because the physical sensation of turning pages, easily flipping back to reread passages to clarify a point, or placing a well-worn bookmark are essential parts of the pleasure of reading.

Of course, after fighting my way to the finish of The Da Vinci Code years ago, in my view the most amazing part of the story linked to above is that so many people would want to read Dan Brown’s new book.