Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Book of Mormon

The night before Jesse’s birthday, I completed my goal of finishing the Book of Mormon. In the last few weeks, I would sometimes read fifty pages at a time. Like every other time I’ve read the Book of Mormon, I’ve felt the tap of spirituality flowing into my life open wider as a result.

I understand that the idea of ancient golden plates located through help of an angel and translated by a farm boy strains credibility. But the idea that Joseph Smith himself wrote the Book of Mormon strains credibility as well.

The Book of Mormon was translated from start to 550-page finish in about 80 days. The only comparison I know of is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which, the story goes, he wrote in three weeks by taping sheets of paper to make a scroll that would roll unbroken through his typewriter. But On the Road is largely autobiographical, with two main characters and a sequence of guest stars who emerge, play their part, then are left behind. Its narrative structure is a very simple, unified chronology. And Kerouac invested extensive note-taking and preparation before he began writing.

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, has amazing narrative complexity. The plot splits among multiple people and places, then rejoins and dovetails, never getting stuck in a narrative corner. People and places mentioned once, come back up later.

This complexity is all the more amazing when you look at the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the words written by scribes as Joseph Smith translated out loud for the very first time. There are no cross-outs, no re-dos. The scribes recount that Joseph smoothly read out his translation, as if reading from a page, with no hesitation or halting. When they took a break, he picked right up where they left off, by the word. Anyone who has written anything knows that not even a grocery list gets composed without revision.

I worked on the Joseph Smith Papers for a couple years, and the Book of Mormon is not written in Joseph Smith’s voice. In fact, one of the amazing things about it is that it’s written in many voices: Nephi’s, Alma’s, and scattered throughout, Mormon’s. My ear can hear the differences, and wordprint analysis concurs.

It's possible that Joseph Smith is one of the world's great literary geniuses and spun this tale from the limited literary models available to him. What belies this theory for me is the fact that once the Book of Mormon was complete, Joseph moved on. He dictated short revelations; he dabbled in learning Hebrew. But he never again attempted a grand literary piece. In fact, throughout his life he demonstrated dislike for the whole enterprise of writing. He felt he should write his history and journals, but he could hardly bring himself to do it. As if Mozart had all of the sudden written a symphony then quit music entirely.

These aren't the reasons I love the Book of Mormon, and you certainly couldn't build a testimony on any of this. I'm just sayin. It's an amazing piece of work, by any standard.

4 comments:

  1. I decided to accept the challenge to read on the seminary schedule this year and to keep a journal as I did. It has been a great experience. In reading the winding up scene now, I have the same feeling of sadness I always do. It is not a happy ending. But, we simply need to learn to write our own ending to our knowledge of the gospel.
    I am looking forward to going back now to my journal and taking time to ponder why I wrote what I did and to finding the answers to the questions recorded...to really study, not just read to finish.

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  2. "As if Mozart had all of the sudden written a symphony then quit music entirely." -Too true! I might quote you on that! Thank you for sharing your testimony of the Book of Mormon. I wonder if sharing our testimonies on our blogs entitles us to the same promise of our sins being forgiven, D&C 62:3. Hmmm...I may need to blog more. Lol.

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  3. So beautiful and so scholarly. I was inspired today by a testimony given by a mother with 5 children - 4 of whom are preschool age and one of whom is like 1 month old - who said that she gives up 20 minutes of her one hour of peaceful naptime to read the BoM and that that sacrifice has totally changed her mothering. I get two hours of peaceful naptime and spend all of it in total selfishness. ... The BoM is calling my name!

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  4. Thanks for these awesome notes. This subject was on my mind while I fasted today, too. I enjoyed your thoughts.

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