30 of the 58 books I read were non-fiction. Of the 30 non-fiction books I read, only 6 were not specifically on Mormonism, including 3 that were entirely non-religious and 1 scholarly religious book that was written by an LDS author but had nothing directly to do with the Mormon faith. That leaves 24 books on my list that are about Mormonism. That’s a ton, but percentage-wise, it’s less “Mormon-heavy” than last year. Mormonism occupied only 41% of my total reading, and a mere 80% of my non-fiction reading. I’m really branching out!
The next most commonly read author on my 2014 list is Daymon Smith, with four titles. Smith has written a multi-volume series that is A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. I’ve now read six of the books in the series, but that’s just over half of them. A linguistic anthropologist, Smith attempts to trace the use (and abuse) of the Book of Mormon within the LDS Church since the church was established in 1830. (Actually, he starts before the church was officially established.) Smith’s books can be very difficult to read but are hugely rewarding for those who put forth the effort to understand them. One of the most important things to come out of my reading of Smith is that I now realize how much we read into scriptural texts. That is, we have certain narratives and ideas already in our heads as we approach a text, and so we frequently obscure the text with preconceived notions, reading it to confirm what we believe it is already saying (but, often times, really isn’t or isn’t necessarily). That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but needless to say, reading Smith has shifted some paradigms and is likely to have a permanent influence on my approach to Mormonism.
To round out my recommendations for amazing reads about Mormonism, I will plug three more books. In order of preference, I highly commend “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology by Charles R. Harrell, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith by Terryl and Fiona Givens, and Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller. Together with Strangers in Paradox, these books comprise all of the five-star non-fiction books I read in 2014. Harrell’s book is something like an encyclopedia, with each chapter tackling a different subject in Mormonism: The Holy Ghost, The Preexistence, Salvation for the Dead, etc. Harrell, a professor at BYU, chronicles how each subject was perceived and understood at various times in history, starting with Old Testament times and moving up through different stages of Mormonism, be it Kirtland-Era Mormonism, Nauvoo-Era Mormonism, or Mormonism today. What most readers will find surprising is that very little of Mormon doctrine has remained static over the years, and our conception of things as central as the nature of God has remained in flux even since the LDS Church was established.
The Crucible of Doubt is a book I wish most Mormons would read. It espouses the kind of Mormonism that I love and embrace, and I think if more Mormons would seriously hold to the views put forth in the book, LDS culture would be remarkably different (for the better). Letters to a Young Mormon is a very tiny book, a book of advice on various subjects written by the author to the hypothetical LDS youth. Don’t let the name of the book fool you—any thoughtful Latter-day Saint will benefit from reading its pages. Miller, a philosophy professor, provides a refreshing look at what it means to live Mormonism in the context of today’s rational world. Both The Crucible of Doubt and Letters to a Young Mormon are published by subsidiaries of the LDS Church and can be found at such non-controversial bookstores as Deseret Book. Just in case you think I only read stuff written by excommunicates and other radicals.
For me, there really were no such things as weeds. They were all special in their own way. I have been told by the American herbalists here that sweet dandelion is considered a weed where they come from and that people go to great lengths to eradicate them. Imagine! My dancing, humming dandelions. Well, it just goes to show that you can turn almost anything into something bad, something evil. Dandelions are weeds and healers are witches. Imagine. (page 54)As noted above, Stephen King was amongst my most-read authors of 2014. I read several King books as a teenager, but went nearly 20 years before I picked him up again in 2013. Yes, in 2013 I read a single book by King, a newly-arrived sequel to King’s 1970s classic The Shining. That’s what piqued my curiosity, and although the book was nothing special—by no means do I think King is an excellent writer—I found a certain satisfaction in reading something that, from a literary standpoint, is a bit more fluffy and entertaining. There was also something nostalgic about reading an author that I associated almost exclusively with my teenage years, and that made it fun. And I guess I got hooked on that feeling, because I’ve now read a few more Stephen King books. It started with Mr. Mercedes, a 2014 thriller about a retired cop who is hunting down the person who purposely drove a Mercedes-Benz into a crowd, killing multiple people. Around Halloween, I read what is highly regarded as one of King’s scariest novels, 1983’s Pet Sematary, about an Indian burial ground that can bring the dead back to life. King then released a second new book in 2014, Revival, about the continually intertwining lives of musician Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs, a minister obsessed with the magical power of electricity. I have to say, Mr. Mercedes was my favorite, with a genuinely taut and suspenseful final few chapters. While I enjoyed the other two novels, I felt they both had fairly little going on much of the time. Pet Sematary didn’t even seem much like a horror book until the last few pages. Even so, I enjoyed my time reading these books and will probably end up reading more Stephen King in the future. Maybe he’ll be my go-to author when I’m wanting to read something that doesn’t require much thought.
And I think that is a satisfactory year-in-review when it comes to books. Stay tuned for review posts about movies, television, and other fun from 2014.