Are we discarding our Mormon heritage? (with Jeff Needle)

Last week I read my Easter gift from my parents: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky. It’s a remarkable, wonderful story (and the story is pretty much what’s in the subtitle of the book), but even more than that it’s a fascinating exploration of how culture is created, fought over, transmitted and discarded. The book is filled with fascinating, touching and moving moments.

And of course, after reading it, I began to wonder if on a much smaller scale, the same problem was happening with Mormon literature. And I do mean a much smaller scale. First of all, Mormon books were mostly published in English (with the exception of the Deseret Alphabet and a few foreign language titles) so that barrier to transmission and block to preservation doesn’t exist. And the number of Mormon-related works that were published never reached the amazing amounts of Yiddish books and periodicals that were produced, which means it’s easier to get a handle on a fairly complete collection. And there are academic collections that are fairly good at BYU and elsewhere. So on the whole, I’m not super worried that our Mormon heritage is being tossed out in dumpsters.

And let it be said: most of the Jews that died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speaking. And Yiddish speakers and, especially, writers also faced great persecution at the hands of Stalin. Most of Mormonism’s literary production happened after its persecutions.

And yet, I owe my interest in Mormon literature to three shelves of books at the Berkeley LDS Institute that were donated. I don’t know if all of the titles came from the same family or person. But I’m pretty sure that most of them were donations and not acquisitions. I also owe the title of this blog to Roy Markow (or his descendants, possibly) who donated a copy of Orson F. Whitney’s “Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland” to the Berkeley Institute. “A Motley Vision” is taken from that poem (which by the way, I still have. I figure it this way — nobody had checked it out before I did. There were actually two copies. And someday I will return it). The people who made these donations could very well have just tossed the books or given them to Deseret Industries or put them in their basements or attic to molder and suffer water damage.

Since I really don’t know if this Mormon books being discarded is a serious issue, I turned to Jeff Needle for some help. Needle is the most prolific reviewer in Mormon literary circles. He won the 2001 Association for Mormon Letters Award for Review. He’s not a Mormon. He live in Southern California. And he is without a doubt the most patient, fair reviewer who work I have ever encountered. Here is what he has to say:

WM: I have a vague sense that we could be losing portions of our Mormon literary heritage. Not on the same scale (and Mormon publishing never reached the same scale) as Yiddish, but there are older works (and by older I mean even works published less than 15 years ago) that are just being tossed because younger generations have no interest them. That sense is based on two things: 1. Comments you have made on the AML List over the years on titles that you have picked up at Deseret Industries 2. The 3-4 shelves of Mormon literary works found in the library of the Berkeley LDS Institute — works that appear to have been donated rather than acquired. Is my vague sense wrong? How long have you been trolling DI for books and what trends, if any, have you noticed? Is this something we should be thinking about?

Wow. A lot of thoughtful stuff here.

Let me begin by affirming that the new generation of Mormon youth seem much less interested in the literary heritage of the Church than previous generations. Some of this has to do with a general malaise in our nation when it comes to books. E-books, movies, dvd’s, etc., are more the style of the younger generation. And even if their parents owned good collections of LDS books, their kids, if they care at all, will simply get a GospeLink program and dispose of the books.

I’ve been shopping at Deseret Industries for about 15 years (maybe more, I’m not sure). For someone like me — passionately interested in LDS books, perpetually short of funds, and living in an area where hardly anyone knows about, or cares about, these books — I have what amounts to a perfect storm. Huge libraries are donated, the book clerks at Deseret Industries have no idea of the value of the books, they mark them at a buck or so, and I sweep in and get the best of them. Do I feel guilty about it? Yeah, a little, but I’ll get over it…

In fact, I am manifestly NOT a book dealer. When I do get rid of books, I give them away free of charge. This is more of a hobby, a passion, a mania for me. Dealers get all upset — why don’t you sell them and make some money? The answer is simple: I just have no interest in making my Mormon books a profit center for my life.

It is indeed amazing what comes in. First editions of “Mormon Doctrine,” pioneer journals, and I even found a book that contained the *original first printings* of the Pearl of Great Price and of a debate on polygamy between Orson Pratt and someone else (I forget). Priceless stuff, marked at 50 cents. Yeah, I bought it.

Of course, a lot of the new stuff comes in too — romance novels, boring doctrinal books, etc. — but I generally pass this by. I have little interest in any of it. And a surprising number of books arrive still in the original shrink wrap!

As we become more mechanized, more computerized, I think we’ll see more and more come in to thrift stores from families that have no further use for the printed volumes. Even older, faithful members are going electronic. This is a real shame, in my opinion. Books are such great friends.

WM: I know that you periodically give away books. What has been the response to those offers? What types of titles do people seem to be the most interested in?

Yes, I give away books all the time. Many of them go to missionaries who are just coming off their missions and are returning home. I’m not sure their passion for their faith survives their exit from the mission field, so I don’t know how much the books are used.

From time to time, but not very often, I get a request for a particular title. Oftentimes I have it, and am glad to pass it along.

Folks *never* ask for fiction titles. This seems to be an area where there is little, if any, interest. Mostly the kids want the standard books — “Mormon Doctrine,” “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” “The Miracle of Forgiveness” — you get the idea.

Here’s the interesting thing — folks don’t ever seem to ask for a book that is outside the comfort level of the true believing Mormon. They seem to want to cram down their intellectual throats the books that are mentioned in General Conference, the works they hear referenced in Sunday School, etc. To date, not a single missionary has even heard of “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” a book I highly recommend.

It is always a bit alarming to me how many street-level Mormons have never even heard of some of the best and the brightest. D. Michael Quinn? Richard Bushman? Who? But mention Jack Weyland, and everyone seems to know who he is. Nothing against Weyland, but this seems so out of kilter to me.

WM: You receive a lot of review titles from publishers. And you write a lot of reviews. One of things that has impressed me is that you’ll give almost any title a fair chance and a fair review. To be blunt: you read works that some of us more snobbish literary types would never consider reading. Do you think there’s value in preserving copies of works that some of us AML types turn up our nose at and in doing so outside of research archives? If so, why?

Oy, a very tricky question.

My tastes in Mormon literature go against the grain. Let’s return to Weyland. I read one of his a few years ago and quite liked it. I can read another book by Weyland and hate it. The same goes for non-fiction. I didn’t like Stephen Robinson’s “Believing Christ” and “Following Christ.” But I’ve liked other things he’s done.

Snobbery shuts the door to any kind of appreciation for the talents and devotion of writers who may not reflect our interests or our standards. Some of the literary elite find it impossible to praise an author whose works in the past have not measured up to their expectations. I’m a bit more open-minded than that.

When I write a review — and when I have a reviewer on my review panel who needs a little prodding — I’m reminded that each book has an intended audience and a variously-talented source. When I read a book by an author whose previous works have disappointed me, I always have to remember that these books were not written to, or for, me. As I assess the value of a book, I have to put myself in the place of a reader in the intended demographic. I can then get a better idea whether the book fulfills its promise or not.

I know what you mean about “snobbish literary types.” There is a certain arrogance about this, a near sense that Galileo was wrong — that the universe revolves around *me*. This is no different from my own arrogance. How dare *anyone* claim to be able to put himself in the place of another reader? Well, like it or not, the fair reviewer must do this. If you can’t do this, then don’t review books. Period.

A final thought about your first question: as many know, the Mormon church, much like other churches, is something of a revolving door — so many baptized, but so many leaving by the back door. New converts can be loaded down with introductory books. When they leave the Church, they generally get rid of the books. Many of them end up at Deseret Industries. This can account, in part, why so many copies of the same books appear week after week.

Thanks, Jeff!

For those interested in Aaron Lansky’s work to save Yiddish books, visit the Web site of the National Yiddish Book Center.

8 thoughts on “Are we discarding our Mormon heritage? (with Jeff Needle)”

  1. Jeff, your Orson Pratt debate was with J.P. Newman … and if you ever toss that, please toss it my way. I’m working on a major paper about Newman.

    Great interview. You move between two different ideas in discussing the preservation of our heritage: You’re concerned with the preservation of the physical book on the one hand — it pains you to think of books mouldering in attics and basements, and since you aren’t chiefly concerned with monetary value your DI finds are more like rescues than big scores. But you’re also concerned with the preservation of the ideas and words in the books — you’re concerned, for instance, about the lack of awareness of major authors.

    Recognizing that there are two types of preservation is important for me, because while I love nice books and still have a few hundred, for virtually every title except something I’d be willing to read in a bathtub or treehouse, I’m just as satisfied — prefer, in fact — an electronic version. I disposed of thousands of books during my last move, and haven’t missed them. I no longer want to live in a library, and I enjoy the light and space that I have now, instead of towering piles of books everywhere. The contents, rather than the object, is what matters most to me in all but a very few cases. Maybe there are others like me, and we account for some of your DI finds. If so, be assured that we haven’t abandoned quite everything!

  2. Great discussion. Thanks for putting this up William and Jeff.

    This reminds me of that amazing event six years ago when my book collection (2000 books at least), which I had stored in my parents attic while I attended grad school, started to crack the ceiling.

    I dragged those babies into the basement and sent an email to the AML List that I was giving them away for free. And lo and behold, only a few books were left at the end of the day (and they were pretty dumb books).

    Talk about a feeding frenzy. 🙂

  3. I remember that, Stephen. And remember regretting that I wasn’t in Utah. Not that I, an apartment dweller, has any place to store things.

    One of the things that I admired about Lansky’s efforts is that (at least in the early days), they’d send titles to students, schools, libraries, organizations — esp. since they ended up with so many duplicates of some titles.

    The idea was to get books in to the hands of readers, of people who wanted them, and not just cloister everything away. And that’s why what you did and what Jeff does is good. And should maybe be happening more.

    Of course, the dynamics are a little differently now because of the used market on the Internet. I got my copy of Bela Petco’s _Nothing very important and other stories_ from half.com.

    And I know there are some dumb Mormon books out there, but another I admire is that they weren’t picky. They figured it was best to just save everything and they’d eventually find a good home for every title (along with keeping titles in their permanent collection).

  4. Great interview.

    FWIW, I request Mormon fiction, but I borrow it from the library (I hat buying books). I’v elike Josi Kilpack’s stuff. I haven’t read too many titles though.

    I actually am not big on LDS non-fiction. I’ve tried reading RSR, but found it too hard to focus while reading it. I may try at a later date.

  5. I’m with Kim about getting books through Inter-Library Loan. I wish I could buy every book I want but money and space are limited. I wish I lived by Jeff Needle so he could toss some fiction titles my way! I wonder, though, if Mormons having a lack of interest in print books is the same as losing our heritage. I’ve studied a fair amount of Jewish literature and I just don’t know that the cultural stakes are as high for us. Yiddish speaking people really were a world apart from others in the same city. Mormons seem to prefer a deeper level of assimilation. I guess what I’m wondering is this: do we have a strong enough culture to produce or even demand entire libraries dedicating themselves to it? I hope that we do, but maybe not. Which is why I think I like AMV, Gideon Burton’s database, and the AML. Efforts like those not only preserve the culture we already have but encourage new cultural growth. Either way I love raiding ward members libraries for out of print stuff. I always feel like I’ve won some sort of contest when I find something.

  6. The cultural stakes definitely aren’t quite as high for us, Laura.

    But perhaps we do need more raiders. 🙂

  7. This is an interesting topic, William, and one that I’ve never quite thought of in this way. Are you using “culture” and “heritage” synonymously? I am extremely wary of Mormon culture because I don’t want it to fog my understanding of Mormon doctrine. In other words, I place more emphasis on conviction rather than tradition.

    I never read LDS fiction, not because of any perceived lack of quality, but in part because our heritage as a religion is so rich. I own everything from biographies to books about Book of Mormon archeology. I’m not sure I would find LDS fiction as compelling as “Rough Stone Rolling.” Obviously I’ll have to think about it.

    Finally, in the spirit of the point Laura made, I don’t identify with LDS heritage mostly because it competes with my ancestral and geographical identity. I grew up in a ward almost exclusively made up of converts, so there wasn’t any kind of entrenched Mormon tradition or culture. In fact, my mother investigated the church for seven years before joining, in part because the first ward she attended in Idaho had so much “heritage” that she felt not only unwelcome, but judged. Consequently, I value my heritage as a Montanan, a descendant of Scoth-Irish immigrants, and even as a farmer’s son. There’s not a whole lot of room left for this idea of religious heritage, especially if the concept exists outside of conviction.

    Mormon heritage… what is it?

  8. William—I read Outwitting History in March and had the same thought you did after reading it. Are “Mormon Books” finding the same fate as those Yiddish ones? I haven’t come across any dumpsters full of old “Especially for Mormons,” but I think the attitude toward each culture’s books is similar. I know I don’t value books like “The Fate of the Persecuters of the Prophet Joseph Smith” the way the author intended, although I have a copy in my basement. Interesting to ponder. Thanks.

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