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

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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."

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."

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