The Best Books?

In today’s Daily Unifarce, I mean… Universe, buried in the back (on p.11) was an interesting article about how LDS college age students don’t buy, and therefore must not read, Gospel-topic literature from places like Deseret Book. It also includes in a side bar the top 10 suggestions for which books are the most influential among Mormons and which are considered required reading in religious circles. Yeah, this is going to be good.

The article centers around an interview with a college student working at Deseret Book and with the Chair of Church History and Doctrine, Arnold Garr. The top 10 list comes from Garr’s own research and was published in 2002 in BYU Studies (sorry no issue reference). The participants were identified as professors and CES instructors.

Our DB employee is a bit back and forth on the issue about why college age students don’t buy religious books. First she says that “(f)or most students, you’ve got to decide whether the latest book from President Hinckley is as important as paying the rent. Unfortunately for most of us, paying the rent takes first priority.”

However, she also goes on to chide her fellow college students, saying that they only come in to buy books about marriage/dating or a set of scriptures. “I really wonder whether people know how to read,” she wonders.

Brother Garr is much more positive about the situation. He’s sure that this generation is more familiar with the scriptures than any previous. He sympathizes with the reading demand on college students and doesn’t blame them for wanting to spend their time watching television, playing video games, and the such. He cites a recent Discovery Channel poll naming the greatest Americans in history, which included Mark Twain as the only author and writer on the list, as demonstrating people’s move away from reading. It’s not only an LDS phenomenon is what he’s driving at, it’s a cultural phenomenon.

His top 10 list of books appears as follows:

10. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary

9. Messiah Series

8. The Miracle of Forgiveness

7. The Articles of Faith

6. Gospel Doctrine

5. Encyclopedia of Mormonism

4. Doctrines of Salvation

3. Jesus the Christ

2. Mormon Doctrine

1. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith

I’m not impressed with our DB employee’s ambivalence toward the situation but Bro. Garr’s positivity and understanding is commendable (I know Bro. Garr personally, not a nicer man on the planet). But the situation is puzzling. Just because LDS college students aren’t buying church books from DB, does that mean that we aren’t reading them? I’m not sure that this follows. I am an exception to the rule most probably but I buy religion books all the time. I don’t get to read as many of them as I’d like but I do read some nearly all the time. I get my books from cheaper places than DB. DI, the Internet, even clearance sales at the BYU Bookstore are better and cheaper places to get my books from than DB.

I am also disturbed by the list presented. When is “Mormon Doctrine” going to stop being must read literature? I loved “Jesus the Christ” on my mission but now I know that it is very out of date on some important issues. Isn’t their a modern replacement with better scholarship and equal faithfulness? And is McConkie so important that he needs three nods in the top 10? How many books published in the past 25 years deserve to be here but aren’t? Where is Robinson’s “Believing Christ?” Where is “Jesus Christ in the World of the New Testament?”

How do you all feel about this list? Any that you think are ranked too high? Any left out that should be included? Any other thoughts or comments?

45 Replies to “The Best Books?”

  1. Outside of perhaps the Encyl of Mormonism, there seems to be nothing on the OT or BoM and nothing specific on the D&C. Very odd, considering how much emphasis is placed scripture reading in general and on the Book of Mormon in particular. Also surprising not to see some “heftier” works on JS on the list.

  2. The thing that I find interesting is that in pretty much every case, these are reference works. That is the kind of book that you have to write in order to make it on the list. It is the reason that other GA books aren’t there because they don’t write reference works. BRM has a corner on the market.

  3. Regarding the List, Garr’s reasearch is based on what? Are you saying these are the top ten most purchased books at DB? If that is the case, I find it surprising EOM is so high, since it costs something like a million bucks.

    I’d say 1, 3, and 7 have stood the test of time ok as introductory volumes, and the others have not done that well. (EOM is limited only by it’s price)

    1. is superceded by the excellent, though out of print Words of Joseph Smith by Ehat and Cook.

    3. isn’t superceded but is supplemented by the current DB life and ministry of JC series

    7. is simplified by Ballard’s simpler Our Search for Happiness.

  4. Garr’s list comes from CES teachers and professors, presumably from RelEd. If these folks were asked which books they were more likely to use, that probably explains the precedence given reference works.

  5. I keep thinking about this and it seems to me that CES teachers are here showing an unwillingness to go beyong works endorsed by the Institute Manuals. The more I think about it, these are the top works sited of the manuals, with the only outlier being possibly the EOM. So perhaps are teachers are going to these resources to get context for the quotes in the Institute Manuals, but beyond that, there’s not much leg work being done. I’d love to see an FPR top ten, BTW!

  6. The article in question is

    Arnold K. Garr, “Which are the Most Important Mormon Books,” in BYU Studies, 41(3) pp.35-47.

    For some reason, the library here at the Mogget-training University does not carry that particular periodical but perhaps one of you enterprising souls in a more fortunate location can take a peek at it?

  7. 1. is superceded by the excellent, though out of print Words of Joseph Smith by Ehat and Cook.

    I love Words of Joseph Smith and own a copy, but its deficiency is that it does not cover all the years that TPJS covers. I wish there was something like Words to cover the other years.

  8. Jacob, might be what you are looking for. I am not sure, but I believe they cover more ground. the Problem I have with TPJS is that some T&S editorials are in there that I think we can’t be 100% certain were JS…

  9. Hm. Very interesting. Much more comprehensive than the DU article suggests. And amusing to find that Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History made it into the fiction division.

  10. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thought this list a little disturbing. I wrote up this post right after I’d read the article and before a class so I was a bit rushed. Some second thoughts:

    There isn’t a living GA in the list. Maybe TT is right about reference works dominating the list but no Hinckley? no Holland? Why should reference books which must, by necessity, be filled with personal biases and positions (ala MD) be considered must reads? That’s why I thought that Robinson’s Believing Christ on grace and Holland’s Christ and the New Covenant on the Atonement should be seriously considered for this list.

    I like the idea of an FPR top 10. Not sure how to carry that out exactly. HP, could we do a head to head elimination style tournament like you’ve done at BCC along these lines?

    Along with Mogs, I too am surprised at the complete lack of commentaries on the standard works. Does this imply *gasp!* that we don’t have any truly excellent commentaries on our scriptures?

  11. Check out the link J. Stapley so kindly provided. You’ll probably find more things worth noting, but here’s a couple that I remember:

    1) The survey authors fault themselves for not including a category covering scripture.

    2) Believing Christ is, in fact, in one of the five categories. Some other now-prominent books weren’t written when the survey was conducted.

    3) Likewise, IIRC there are books by GAs and books about GAs that are found in certain categories.

    4) Respondents did not uniformly categorize books. Some consider Jesus the Christ a biography, others doctrinal. That skews the results.

    5) The survey respondents are heavily weighted toward folks who are, in some fashion, paid by the church and better educated than Joe Six-pack. They’re probably also overwhelmingly male.

  12. The list reflects CES priorities (that’s whose opinion is being expressed here) — which is why Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith dominate the list. IMHO, the list is worse than useless as a guide for current LDS readers, but it’s a good indication of what’s wrong with CES. I wish they would just fire every last one of them and start from scratch.

  13. Yeah, that article link was gold J. Thanks a ton. One thing I noticed was a conspicuous absence of the top 10 as it appeared in the DU. Not sure why. I’m glad to see that the overall survey was much broader than could be seen from the DU but the fact still remains that only one book (series actually) published in the last 30 years cracked the top 10. And three were from nearly 100 years ago.

    My question is: Do these books really reflect the 10 best overall books in the Church today or just 10 of the best books to read if you want to understand the majority of what Mormons think and understand about their gospel? I think the latter is closer to the truth.

    Mogs: Good observations. The background of the participants used was particularly interesting. I expected it to be lopsided in favor of CES and related folk. It was but the turn out from BYU, BYU-I, BYU-H, and non-affiliated participants was higher than I expected overall.

  14. Jacob (#12), the church will have to be overrun by liberals and/or agnostics before they’ll release JS’s personal journal for 1843-1844. Papers of Joseph Smith vol. 3 by Dean Jessee was supposed to come close, but was scrapped. The only thing close to it I suppose would be one of the Dan Vogel compilations. I wonder if it’s because they don’t want people reading the words “second anointing” on every other page and then making annoying phone calls and/or writing letters to SLC asking about it – it would put them in an awkward position because A) they still practice it, but B) you don’t deserve it because you’re a nobody. I include myself in that group.

  15. How do you all feel about this list?

    LXX, I think it’s a fair list if it’s coming from a CES instructor who wants to keep his job. That said, I’d like to see less McConkie and more from others who were less condescending.

  16. I don’t know David. I understand the Papers of Joseph Smith, which first volumes should be out this year (like every year) are to be fairly uncensored. The Selected Collections DVD’s are replete with higher temple ordinance goodness (though at $1,000 a pop, there aren’t too many average saints perusing them). If you want the Book of the Law of the Lord, Scott Faulring’s edition is wonderful. Though Words does cover the 1843-1844 public discourses (including excerpts from that diary). The problem with Words is that it is only Nauvoo.

  17. I’m not entirely sure that Dave (#18) has accurately represented why Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith dominate the list.

    Joseph Fielding Smith was, according to David O. McKay’s 1966 First Presidency,

    “an able and fearless defender of the Church [and] a learned exponent of its doctrine…. Few, if any, have possessed a broader and deeper knowledge of the Church and its doctrine. He [was] a scholar with scarcely a peer.” (The Improvement Era, vol. 69, no. 7, July 1966, p. 613.)

    In addition, he was a man without guile, an honest man, a pure man, a loyal member of the Church, and Tenth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Bruce R. McConkie is greatly underestimated, I think, by some LDS readers who ignore his reputation among Church leaders and the impact he had on the delineation of Mormon doctrine. According to one reliable source, his Apostolic associates frequently turned to him on matters of doctrine.

    “Often when a doctrinal question came before the First Presidency and the Twelve, Elder McConkie was asked to quote the scripture or to comment on the matter. He could quote scripture verbatim and at great length. [He] provided the entire Church with an example of gospel scholarship. He could teach the gospel with ease because he first understood the gospel.” (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, June 1985, 16.)

    In the most recent General Conference, Apostles L. Tom Perry and Russell M. Nelson both quoted Bruce R. McConkie on doctrine. (Ensign, Nov. 2007, pp. 73, 80, and 81.) Last spring, in the General Young Women Meeting, Sister Julie B. Beck, First Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, quoted the book Mormon Doctrine. (Ensign, May 2007, p. 106.)

    President Gordon B. Hinckley has testified that Elder McConkie “was a dedicated scholar of the gospel and a fearless advocate of its message. Our lives were enriched and our understanding broadened by the logic of his presentation and the sincerity of his declaration.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 5.)

    If the list is a good indication of anything about CES, it is that CES works under the direction of the First Presidency and Twelve, not the other way around. The idea that “they would just fire every last one of them” is somewhat amusing perhaps, but probably also a little out of touch with reality.

  18. What can I say? I’m a masochist. And I picked this to write on just because it would hopefully ruffle a few feathers. So I guess that makes me a jerk too.

  19. What sticks out to me is that none of the books on this list were published (for the first time anyway) in about the past 25 years. I’m sure I don’t have all of my dates correct and the list itself is a couple of years old, but it troubles me that some kind of “golden age” of Mormon religious literature is seemingly over. I’m not all that wild about several of the works on this list. I read recently in the new David O. McKay book that DOM found thousands of doctrinal errors in Mormon Doctrine and did not want it to be published. The out-of-date scholarship associated with “Jesus the Christ” has already been noted here. I think the time lag has something to do with the fact that these works acquire prestige because of their vintage. I think that in 20 years, people will look back on things like Rough Stone Rolling and move works such as it up the list. I’m also frustrated because of the publishing practices of DB. DB won’t publish some works by good active Mormon scholars doing reputable work but seem to have no end to their appetite for trivial Mormon fiction and bad movies. Just look how many pages of your recent DB catalog are filled with such works (and the front pages no less).

  20. RE college students buying/reading LDS books: Marketing “exit polls” done by DB and Covenant indicate that the vast majority of LDS books (north of 70%, as I recall) are not purchased for reading by the purchaser, but rather as gifts. Adults may be buying most LDS books, but even of the 30% they buy for themselves, they probably are reading only a fraction of those. Of the many LDS books most of us have received as gifts (2-3 a year for me), the percentage read is probably not great either. My father, for example, has a couple of hundred LDS books, but has only read substantial parts of a bare handful. In my limited experience, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that he’s atypical. There are some exceptions to the rule, and sales numbers reveal them. First, fiction sells like nothing else and is read in quantity. Second, books on scripture (“SS teaching supplements”) sell only modestly, but more are probably purchased and used by teachers than are given away as gifts. DB used to publish only one “academic” title per year, more as community service than for profit, but that number has slowly gone up as, I think, sales have improved some (though, shamefully, some academic books still must be underwritten by the author(s)). Finally, there are occasional break-out non-fiction works whose sales figures likewise indicate genuine reader interest. Believing Christ is probably the best example. It is one of the only non-fiction works DB has ever published that has reached the sales stratosphere of LDS fiction (books on “marriage relations” (i.e., s*x) also sell extremely well). A solid non-fiction title may sell 6,000-10,000 copies, while even a mediocre fiction title can do 10x that. Sad but true.

  21. Apparently Draper’s Opening the Seven Seals is one of the few other NF that has done really well. Just got reprinted in soft cover too.

  22. Adam Laughton (#30) “read recently in the new David O. McKay book that DOM found thousands of doctrinal errors in Mormon Doctrine and did not want it to be published.” At the risk of being labeled picky, I’ll point out that “thousands” is not the word used by the book’s authors. More importantly, there are significant omissions about Mormon Doctrine in the Prince and Wright book that Adam refers to.

    For example, Prince and Wright report it was Marion G. Romney and Mark E. Petersen who reviewed Mormon Doctrine in 1960 and “recommended 1,067 corrections” (p. 50). Prince and Wright then report that the 2nd (and current) edition of Mormon Doctrine was published six years later in 1966.

    Twelve years later, in October of 1972, Marion G. Romney was President Harold B. Lee’s Second Counselor and Mark E. Petersen was still a senior Apostle when Bruce R. McConkie was approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve and sustained as the Church’s newest Apostle. If something weren’t missing from this story. one would have to wonder why Romney and Petersen approved McConkie’s call. As Joseph Fielding McConkie observed,

    “It takes a pretty good imagination to suppose that a man who flagrantly ignored the direction of the president of the Church and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would be called to fill a vacancy in that body” (The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son, Deseret Book, 2003, p. 183; click here to read the entire chapter).

    Not even mentioned by Prince and Wright is Spencer W. Kimball’s assignment in connection with the preparation of Mormon Doctrine for a 2nd edition and the fact that Elder Kimball asked McConkie to revisit only about fifty areas, rethinking the tone of his writing and the wisdom of perhaps not saying some things even though true.

    Much more about Kimball’s involvement with Mormon Doctrine’s 2nd edition can be found in the J. F. McConkie chapter quoted above. Suffice it here to say that the Prince and Wright statement that McConkie “moved with the same boldness of eight years earlier, and published a second edition” (p. 52) tells a very incomplete story.

    The rumor repeated yet again by Nitsav (#1) about Deseret Book no longer publishing Mormon Doctrine has been floating around for some time. But my guess is Deseret Book will remain true to form and, motived by the money, keep Mormon Doctrine in print until it no longer sells.

    How can Ben (#28) possibly know the future status of McConkie among the apostles? But even if he does, those of us who simply follow living prophets (the 15 apostles) will never find that course disappointing.

  23. However, she also goes on to chide her fellow college students, saying that they only come in to buy books about marriage/dating or a set of scriptures. “I really wonder whether people know how to read,” she wonders.

    Most of my textbooks were $70 each. And that was in the early 90’s. Things have only gone up. Checking Amazon for those texts most are about twice that now. (Or more in a few cases) That adds up fast. Add in a good library and exactly why should a student buy books?

    Once I got a job that changed fast. (I hate to think how much I’ve spent on books over the years)

  24. Draper’s Opening the Seven Seals is one of the few other NF that has done really well

    That’s not totally surprising, though. “Explanations” of the Apocalypse seem to find a ready market in many corners of the religious world.

  25. Books on Isaiah do well with LDS too, which is why there have been so many. Parry has done about six by himself. Monte Nyman’s little book on Isaiah did well, so he did a follow-up on Jeremiah. Alas, that went straight to the remainder table. Other than books on Isaiah and the occasional survey, almost all LDS books on the Bible are on NT. Not enough interest in OT.

  26. Not enough interest in OT

    Sad but true. And a crying shame if you ask me. I’m a bit biased, however, but still, the biggest chunk of the standard works gets the least amount of love… I find it incredibly difficult to study the NT without knowing a lot about the OT. And I find it hard to study the BofM without knowing what’s going on in the NT (esp. Paul), which implies knowing a lot about the OT.

    Why does Isaiah get all the love? Is it because people think he foresaw the SLC temple or something?

  27. R. Gary – quoting GAs at FPR is not allowed. It only infuriates us. Don’t do it again.

    J (#25), the DVDs are not comprehensive, so I assumed that they were trimming out the fullness of the priesthood stuff, which tends to be the case (even when quoting D&C 124:28 in the Ensign!). Just come out and teach it, I say. Why all the conspiracy? It’s so annoying.

  28. David J (38): Why Isaiah? A few reasons come immediately to mind: Isaiah chapters in the BoM, “great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Ne. 23:1), and the push occasionally given it in curriculum and by the Brethren. My personal favorite is McConkie’s observation, “If our eternal salvation depends upon our ability to understand the writings of Isaiah as fully and truly as Nephi understood them—and who shall say such is not the case!—how shall we fare in that great day when with Nephi we shall stand before the pleasing bar of Him who said: “Great are the words of Isaiah”?” (“Ten keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign, Oct. 1973). Isaiah is the only individual book of the Bible taught regularly as a class at BYU Rel Ed. LDS interest in the Qumran Isaiah scroll may help some too (prominent is all Parry’s stuff). There is a replica of it traveling the globe in LDS Public Relations’ itinerant DSS exhibit.

  29. Bodhi, see comment # 39. You just annoyed me.

    So I can’t be saved unless I understand Isaiah like Nephi did, no way around it? Hmmmm… something doesn’t sound right.

  30. Actually, quoting GA’s is allowed. Quoting them as if you are the final word in how to interpret what they have said is what is infuriating. Well, if not infuriating, then at least deserving of an eye-roll.

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