After I finished Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, discussed here, I decided Mormon history would be my next reading project. I do this from time to time when a subject grabs my attention. I try to find the top books on the topic and read them all (obsessive? moi?) Past projects which still pique my interest when I see something new are infectious diseases and U.S. frontier history. Mormon history is tied with the latter, and some may argue that it is indeed infectious. Also, I was 3 units shy of a minor in comparative religious studies when I graduated college with a history degree. I didn't complete the minor as I was already accepted in law school and could not delay graduation, but the area still fascinates me.
Despite the vast array of books on Mormons, the faith, and its history, once you eliminate the potentially biased sources (official Mormon publications, anything issuing from Brigham Young University, non-Mormon Christian polemics against the faith or seeking to convert Mormons to the True Church) the pickings are indeed slim. And I usually only buy used books online, so my selection was further limited. I went with books referenced by Krakauer, and one more recent best seller, and I'll see where I go from here.
While on these projects, I frequently run into the problem best expressed in the book report by a little girl on a book titled "Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Penguins." It read, "This was more than I wanted to know about penguins." I try to get just past the dilettante level of knowledge (as someone said to me recently) and then decide if it will be an ongoing study. We'll see what happens with this one.
Here's my list, with comments on what I've read so far:
- Not yet read
- Just started -- so far, it is excellently researched and unbiased. The author is/was Mormon, but above that, an excellent scholar. Her devotion to accuracy caused her great discord with the church. Originally published in the '40's, it was recently revised and annotated with subsequent historical discoveries.
- Halfway read, then gave it up, due to the Penguin Problem. The authors (non-Mormon) explore a dispute as old as the book of Mormon itself -- that Joseph Smith had access to an unpublished manuscript of a novel written 20 years before and presented it, with his own religious lectures inserted, as translated text from fictitious golden plates. There's a good argument for it, and it's fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, this book is exhaustively researched and written with every possible reference included and spends most of its time defending the theory against all the Mormon detractors, leaving it unreadable by any but the most devoted scholar. I'd love to read a 150-page version of this 400+ page book, with all argument deleted and the facts presented simply.
- I read this true crime book years ago about a contemporary forger of historical Mormon letters, manuscripts etc. who eventually turned to murder to cover his forgery. Oddly, the murderer became the cell mate of one of the murderers in Krakauer's book. I remember it as very interesting and unbiased, written by two New York Times journalists. To explain the nature of the forgery and why the Mormon Church itself was the criminal's biggest client required a clearly presented summary of Mormon history and doctrines, which this book does very well. I intend to read it again after I complete the rest of this list.
- Not yet read. Krakauer refers to both this and the Brooks work above in "Under the Banner of Heaven." I couldn't decide, so I got both. Like the "Spaulding Enigma" and the Penguin Problem, I may have bitten off more than I can chew about this single historical incident.
So far, there's little danger of my running off to Utah. My personal beliefs remain intact.
No new info on Hermes. I'm not holding my breath. It probably would be better for all concerned for him to find a loving home in NYC. But if no one else turns up soon, I feel that happiness delayed is happiness denied. Whether that's Hermes's happiness or my own is open to question.