Thursday, June 4, 2009

Books I've read lately

My wife's been noting that I haven't posted anything lately on my blog. So here's an attempt to give her--and anyone else interested--something fresh to read. And I mean not just what I've posted here, but the books I've posted about.

On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary by Richard L. Bushman

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
A short but fascinating book by an eminent historian (Bancroft prizewinner, emeritus Columbia University professor--also was my stake president when I first went to Harvard). It's mainly in the form of a diary he wrote after the publication of Rough Stone Rolling, his biography of Joseph Smith. The diary is not so much about his writing of the biography, though he does reflect some on that, as it is about the aftermath--book tours, lectures, his reactions to reviews in the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other publications. But most of all it's a reflection--wise, profound, stimulating--about how a scholarly attempt to be "objective" and at the same time true to one's deepest convictions runs up against ingrained preconceptions in one's readers. People, including academics, writers, and book reviewers, who pride themselves on their fidelity to "objective truth" can be among the most rigid in refusing to consider possible realities that don't fit within their paradigms.

What I loved best about this book, though, was Bushman's candor and humility. He comes across as absolutely human, talking about his moods, his questions and beliefs, and his struggles to be honest, spiritually receptive, and good (I love his daily mantra: "Today I will be a follower of Jesus Christ").

The diary also amounts to a kind of survey of the religious/intellectual landscape of early 21st-century America. There are references to Bushman's interactions with all sorts of individuals and institutions--various universities (from Columbia to MIT to Notre Dame to BYU to Stanford), scholarly organizations, radio and Internet interviewers, publishers, newspapers and magazines (from Newsweek to the Christian Science Monitor), the Library of Congress, LDS General Authorities, and religious and non-religious folks of various stripes (including an eminent evangelical scholar, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and non-believers). In the course of almost a year he spent writing the diary, he traveled (from his base in New York City) to Utah, California, Idaho, Washington state, Wyoming, Montana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Among the many others mentioned are people that I (or in some cases my wife) know--Jim Lucas (a former roommate), Bushman's wife and kids, Curt Bench (a bookseller), Molly Bennion, Newell Bringhurst, Grant Underwood, Ariel Bybee, Jana Riess, Marlin K. Jensen, Jeffrey R. Holland, Clayton Christiansen, Terryl Givens, the Frandsens (of La Canada, CA), Marcus Smith (with KBYU-FM), Cory Maxwell, Robert L. Millet, Jeff Needle, Hugh Nibley, Cherry and Barnard Silver, Andrew Delbanco (who was at Harvard when I was there), and indirectly Walter Jackson Bate (I was his assistant--Bushman refers to his biography of Samuel Johnson as a model). Those personal connections were an added bonus in a book that, even without those, would have been one of the most humane and thought provoking I've read in some time.

P.S.: You can find the book's concluding comment online at

A Canticle for Leibowitz A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I just finished this book, which was recommended by my son Rob. It's a remarkable book, well written, imaginative, deeply thought provoking. Though often classified as science fiction, it really transcends that genre. The term "speculative fiction" works better: the book imagines a post-apocalyptic future in three stages, but with recurring themes and symbols. Besides presenting, often with subtle humor and biting irony, a number of striking characters and incidents, the book is drenched with philosophical, ethical, and religious implications, and comments (through the events and the characters) on science, technology, politics, history, and lots of other things. The author skillfully depicts individual stories but sets them in a large-scale global and historical context so that the drama involves the fate of civilizations and even of humanity, as well as of individuals.

For me, the author's apparent point of view became a little too obvious near the end, but for the most part the ideas in the book are dramatized, not preached, allowing readers to grapple with the ideas without feeling pressured toward a particular conclusion. Another intriguing thing about the book, from my point of view, is that it begins with a character named "Brother Francis Gerard of Utah" (I live in Utah), associated with a monastery which seeks to preserve learning after a period of nuclear destruction and subsequent social chaos. I look forward to the sequel Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which apparently further explores events taking place between parts 2 and 3 of the earlier book.

View all my reviews.

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