Close reading and other approaches to The Book of Mormon

English departments at most universities have for the past few decades in part justified their disciplinary existence on the grounds that they produce students who are good “close readers.”  To be a close-reader in part means to be an active reader, but in practice it is also means literally “close,” focused on how small units – punctuation, words, sentences – convey meaning.  The story goes something like this: if students learn to read actively, then they will become ethical free agents who we no longer be duped by the ideologies they encounter.  They will be, in short, better consumers, able to dissect the assumptions and claims made by the messages they encounter and assign them with proper value.  And, importantly, this ability to read is a transportable skill, a skill that will payoff in any professional field and thus justify English as a major.

When pressed, this line of reasoning seems to me at best troubled.  It seems far from clear to me that reading skills really are transportable from one sphere to another.  The ability to read a novel, in my mind, requires a much different set of reading skills than the ability to read, for example, a newspaper or a blog.  Different mediums and genres appear to demand different modes of reading, some which value our ability to ignore or forget information as much as to focus closely on it.  The sales pitch for close reading frequently ignores real problems about how the material coniditon of the object of study change reading practices and meaning. And, yet, this story about the value of close reading persists, perhaps because the story strategically allows English departments to resolve certain educational problems.  Close reading, importantly, is a very democratic form of scholarship.  If the goal of an education in English is to become a good close reader, then it ceases to matter precisely what or how much you have read.  Indeed, the only real value in reading a lot is that it might improve your ability as a reader.  Conveniently, then, people from all different backgrounds can become close-readers, and critics can sidestep the vexing question of what to canonize.  Moreover, close reading is cheap.  If the goal of the English department is to produce close readers who can learn their skills on any literary object, then institutions no longer need to make a financial investment in particular, expensive literary objects, like rare books.  The idea of close reading might fall apart when pressed or thought about too hard, but close reading will likely remain the central practice of English departments so long as it can serve such strategic purposes.

But, might close reading also play a strategic role within the Mormon Church?  Our culture, to a large extent, is forged by the relationship of church members to a particular book, The Book of Mormon.  At the heart of our relationship to this book seems to be the promise that we all can turn to it and receive our own inspiration.  Our relationship with it is, notably, also always removed from the material object of The Book of Mormon, since we read only copies of the plates and have no access to the plates themselves.  Mormons, I suspect, have a variety of reading habits that are not at all “close.”  Sometimes we look closely at passages, but often we skim, read according to strict schedules (focusing on the amount we read each night rather than the content), or read in conjunction with glossings from lesson manuals.  But our tendency to read through the filter of these glossings aside, Moroni holds out the promise that we each can be good readers of The Book of Mormon and know whether or not it is true.  Unlike, say, the Catholic Church, we have no organized clergy – no endowed, professional readers of our text.  Perhaps that is to some extent a loss.  There is, I believe, value in having professional readers who can comb archives and learn to read in the context of other objects, producing readings that are decidedly undemocratic, because based on materials that few have access to, but that can also be revealing and provide more “accurate” judgments.  And, yet, because the ultimate meaning of The Book of Mormon in our culture I believe is most often configured in lying within the reader’s personal inspiration, we have also strategically invested The Book of Mormon with the ability to be transported into various different cultures and to speak back to a heterogeneous group of readers.  Despite our doctrinal focus on continuity with the past, our typical reading practices leave little room for accessing the history of the text itself.  We, famoulsy, liken the text to ourselves, seeing ourselves in its words.Perhaps this transportability, the ability to transcend both the place and historical moment of its composition that is gained by investing the power to make meaning in the reader as opposed to the text or to the material object of the gold-plates now turned book, was exactly what its writers intended when they wrote for the ever-shifting moment of “our days.”  This practice of reading is democratic, certainly, but also egocentric. Are there other models of reading available, and would they change our culture?

Comments

  1. Jonathan Green says:

    Well, sure, but why would we want to replace current prevailing practices of devotional reading with something else? Accentuating the otherness of the Book of Mormon, or distancing it from our own situation, or letting someone else take responsibility for interpretation–I’m just not seeing a devotional upside in any of those. When has delving into textual history ever been a devotional aid for most readers?

    In your last paragraph, you mostly list exceptions rather than examples of close reading. Do you think Mormons are actually engaging in close reading all that much? I don’t know if we often do read Alma the same way we read Milton, and the attempt seems to have some real limits, given the unknowable textual history and the way the manuscript was set in type. At some degree of magnification, close reading starts discovering patterns in the static rather than anything significant.

  2. Even though I was an English Major, that’s been many years ago, and what we used to call “critical reading” is now crushed under years of learning to read technical texts to garner specific knowledge, and becoming engineer-like (sidenote – that sounds awful in retrospect!).

    So as a lay person, as it were, I want to make sure I understand correctly. Are you saying that we are mostly a culture of “close-readers” when it comes to the BOM? I would agree that there are different ways to read the BOM, and regularly do two types. First, I do try to read it each year. Second, I do try to exercise some detailed reading of particular topics, looking for patterns and connections between passages and words. I find both meaningful.

    This will sound a little odd, but at some level, I look at it as doing something like building a search engine database (Google as a model). Reading the story is analagous to the web-crawler function that gets the whole text into a database. I become familiar with the overall structure and text. Then, just as Google builds indexes based on different factors, such as punctuation, fonts, position of text within documents, doing a detailed reading of particular passages for a specific topic or looking for particular patterns. I not only use the existing concordance and indexes, but create my own lists and references that tie together passages that perhaps have more meaning (ie, relevance) to me.

    In doing this, I find that although my relationship to the text is universal, or that any copy of the Book of Mormon can be used, the referencing, margin notes, and markings I have made in my copy of both my Bible and my Book of Mormon has made the actual object more valuable to me. I’d be mortified if I lost one of them, and had to start this process all over again. It represents a lot of time and effort that I would hate try and replicate.

    I’d be better off, perhaps, in using some sort of outside notebook, but then that would become extraordinarily valuable, but because it exists outside the text or object itself, less usable. Not sure if this is what you had in mind, but it got me to thinking about my own approach to the text.

    Thanks for this series of posts. I’m enjoying them very much.

  3. Nate, I agree with your point about English departments. I think they’ve been struggling for identity for years. The original intellectual justifications have long since fled. Doing it because you like it seems un-intellectual (although probably the best reason – University education as play). And the other soft sciences and humanities (sociology, economics, psychology, political science) have taken most of their thunder by doing it better.

    What’s left?

    The issue of democracy is interesting. At one time it was important to read the classics because they formed the standard cultural basis from which all intellectual discussions took place. No more, of course. Shakespeare at best remains.

    But in subcommunities it is very important to understand their literature in order to understand them. One can always debate the choice of literature. But I think overall this is true.

    Apply this to Mormonism and what does one have though? What are the “classics” to which someone ought read to understand Mormon culture? (Perhaps in a way that the typical Mormon doesn’t even understand)

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Clark — Nate? heh.

    Your final question is provocative, though. It presupposes that an amount of study is necessary to understand Mormon culture, or that understanding Mormon culture is something necessary or desirable.

  5. Whoops. Sorry I meant to type Natalie but for some reason got confused and thought I was on T&S for a second. I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I have been entertaining the idea of beginning a “close reading” of the Book of Mormon. Seeing as my English degree has proven itself to be utterly useless in securing employment, perhaps it could at least lead me to a more profound understanding of my religion. However, I have not started this “close reading”, mostly out of mental laziness. I find myself wishing there were some course I could take that would guide me in this pursuit. We all know that this year’s Sunday School program will not do that.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    “Seeing as my English degree has proven itself to be utterly useless in securing employment”

    Stephanie, I don’t know where you got the delusion that it would ever be of any use in that respect. English majors are useless!

  8. Whoops II. Hit send at the wrong time.

    To your question. I think it presupposes that an amount of study is necessary for newcomers and outsiders to understand Mormon culture. Insiders may get enough via the texts coming from everyone speaking.

    As to whether this is necessary. I don’t think so. I don’t think we have to understand the community to live our religion. I think Mormons have a tendency to overemphasize the community rather than being communal. (Often those attacking the ‘burden’ of Mormon culture are the very ones falling into this trap)

    As to whether it is desirable. I don’t know. I guess it is to me in some measure or I wouldn’t blog. But I think it’s more a personal interest sort of thing.

  9. Steve, I believe someone told me that a degree in English accomplished one of two things: Either you were qualified to live at home, or to attend law school. I somehow managed to miss both, and thus scratch oout my feeble living in the tech world.

  10. Stephanie says:

    Sadly, I fall into the un-intellectual category of people that Clark mentioned who major in English because they like it. Perhaps I was naive enough to think that an English degree would at least help me get some kind of an office job. How wrong I was.

  11. Stephanie, you’ve got to hang on to some dignity. Surely you read something that no one else in your peer group has ever read? In my case, it was James Joyce Ulysses. That’s the true value of a liberal education, bragging rights!

  12. Steve Evans says:

    “I think Mormons have a tendency to overemphasize the community rather than being communal.”

    Clark, care to clarify this?

    Kevinf: Moby Dick.

  13. My English major was a great help in getting my job as a maker of cardboard boxes. I was able to find the words to be able to call it “corrugated fiberboard container engineer.” Made me feel much better. *sighs*

  14. Latter-day Guy says:

    Well, sure, but why would we want to replace current prevailing practices of devotional reading with something else? Accentuating the otherness of the Book of Mormon, or distancing it from our own situation, or letting someone else take responsibility for interpretation–I’m just not seeing a devotional upside in any of those. When has delving into textual history ever been a devotional aid for most readers?

    I’m not sure if I am addressing the same issue you are, my apologies. However, I have found that my understanding of the NT is helped a great deal by knowing the context both of the story and of the textual history. We LDS tend to be fairly pragmatic in our religious studies; everything must be applicable to our lives. The end of a Sunday School lesson is often some variant on “Therefore, what?”

    As that is the case, it has been my experience that a fairly in depth exegesis leads to a more concrete exposition of a scripture. It can seem less than “spiritual” at first (there are fewer warm fuzzy/tender mercy, etc.) but the dividends pay off later.

    Sometimes we can be a bit single-minded in our pursuit of spiritual experiences, taking another hit off the god-bong. But as we look more closely at content and really engage the material in a meaningful way, spiritual experiences result naturally, especially as we apply what we come to understand after deep study.

    So yes, for me at least, studying textual history has been extremely rewarding in a devotional way (though the peculiarities of the Book of Mormon and it’s translation complicate the matter).

  15. #11 – “The Changing of the Gods” – Fascinating book, actually.

    I have had young kids in my house for 20 years. Our reading of the Book of Mormon with them always worked best when we read verse by verse, with no attempt to read any given amount, and discussed each verse before moving on. Sometimes, with as many as 12-15 people reading, we ended up reading only 12-15 verses – but everyone understood those verses.

    Natalie, another great post. I want my children to understand our scriptures intimately, but I am more concerned that they *feel* their power and recognize their source. I like the individual focus of scriptural understanding – the lack of formal, official interpretation – the fluidity inherent in our “as far as it is translated correctly” mentality. I love to learn from Kevin Barney and JNS and J. Stapely and Margaret and Ardis and others, but I also love that, in the end, I can’t cede my understanding to them – that it is left to me to construct my own, unique perspective.

  16. #15: I AGREE with Ray! (Heart be still!): “In the end, I can’t cede my understanding to them – that it is left to me to construct my own, unique perspective”.
    To come at it another way, I would think the BoM or Bible should be understandable, at some workable level, by an 8th grade reader. I would hope it is not only for the English majors and Greek readers (no insult mean to Kevin Barney and JNS and J. Stapely and Margaret and Ardis or others).

  17. I also downloaded IBM’s Lotus Symphony Beta. ( FREE!)
    You now also have to learn a new way to write!

  18. Word, Natalie
    Not being an English major, I’ve found that I can do fine in my schooling by just ‘skimming’ the text books. Unfortunately, I’ve become so accustomed to that reading style that when I pick up a novel I get prose-ADD and have to totally switch gears.
    I think our current scripture mastery and anecdotal approach to reading the Book of Mormon could destract from the historical record and only focus on the ‘road map’ go-here-do-this use.
    In my teen years I worked at the local Christian Book Store for a year (music dept.) and you had to search quite a bit to find a complete version of the Bible. The minced-up, specialized versions can be helpful for people needing a road map book, but offer little in regard to literature. I think it would be neat to see some sort of ‘Book of Mormon Appreciation” class in church.

  19. #16: “no insult meant” Why does spell check fail when you spell the word right!?

  20. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Sometimes we can be a bit single-minded in our pursuit of spiritual experiences, taking another hit off the god-bong. But as we look more closely at content and really engage the material in a meaningful way, spiritual experiences result naturally, especially as we apply what we come to understand after deep study.”

    This interested me, Guy.

    I think two things (at least) are neccesary to have a spiritual experience in a learning environment – including, or especially, in solitary reading. First is a soft and receptive heart – in a teaching / learning envornment that probably means something like humble openness and searching; and, second, truth. The way I fancy it, the Holy Spirit coalesces around truth – but unless we’re also receptive, with all that entails, it won’t matter. There may be then truths that because we are hardened to (sincerly) / pre-decided against, we simply can’t have revealed to us. But it is also possible to go wrong in the other way. That is: be humble, teachable, sincere and searching, and then, in the absence of truth still decide that whatever is spoken is spirtually confirmed because of how it makes us _feel_. (It touched me, it resonated with me. We take a hit off something, anyway.)

    If these two things are present, I think we have at least put ourselves in the ball park of benefitting spiritually from our reading. I don’t mean to detract from the interest of Natalie’s post by suggesting that learning new ways to read are probably not that beneficial, spiritually, in the absence of either. **insert horse before cart** But with them, sure … whatever floats your boat, give it a whirl. Coming at things from new perspectives is pretty much always a good idea.

    I’m personally opposed to passing texts through jargon filters. You know, I’ve got my particular set of bones to pick and after I pass this text through my jargon filter you’ll either be spell- bound or at least know exactly who I won’t be voting for this year.

    Chock me up as the party-pooper on this thread.

    ~

  21. Sadly, I fall into the un-intellectual category of people that Clark mentioned who major in English because they like it.

    Nothing wrong with that. That’s why I studied what I studied without much thought about jobs until suddenly I graduated. Part of the problem with a college education is this schizophrenia between the classic model of a bunch of rich kids who don’t need worry about career off studying things they like that are in a sense ‘useless.’ Then you have the reality of needing a job as well as the fact that much of what you do in college is (or ought) be focused on a job.

    I think most of us, in hindsight, would have done things differently.

    “I think Mormons have a tendency to overemphasize the community rather than being communal.”

    Clark, care to clarify this?

    We’re so focused on either fitting into to some ‘society’ or not fitting in or the idea that we perceive that we’re expected to fit in (whether true or false) that we forget what religion is all about. Community the way way too many think of it is about expectations. It’s like a high school popularity contest. And, like high school, the folks who feel like they aren’t making it (which is most) think everyone else is. Most of us look back at high school and think how silly it is. But all too often the same social phenomenas repeat themselves in different guises.

    Communal living is simply loving everyone and trying to be a good neighbor and worrying less about how you do it.

    Most rhetoric about Mormon culture is of the former. The folks who worry about it are often just as trapped in a false kind of social economy as the people they criticize. Meanwhile there’s a bunch of people who don’t give a dang (I remember the swearing thread) who just are out being good people, friends and neighbors.

  22. This is my first time on this site and I’m not exactly sure what it is (I’ll find out for myself later) but since I am an English major whose degree did help to secure him a job, I thought I’d comment here.

    I’m employed by a newspaper and while I probably didn’t need a degree to get the job, I’m grateful for the insights into reading and theories about reading afforded to me by my schooling and how they pertain to my current position.

    And the bragging rights about having finished Ulysses, as someone pointed out here. Actually, outside of the college course I took, I can’t ever image wading as deep (equipped with proper metaphorical gear) into Joycean waters as I have.

    So I don’t think that an English degree is a waste, I don’t think departments are scrambling for an identity (I used to work in the grad department of one) and I don’t think any college degree can be defined as useless.

    As for close readings of the Book of Mormon, I definitely feel that the knowledge helps. Also with regard to the world of consumerism — I feel like I can see the mechanics of every ad I see. No one is selling a product; they are selling a way of life that aligns itself with a particular product. At the very least I am conditioned to not accept a lot of things mindlessly, and I can tell you my wife tires of my continual opining.

  23. Just as an aside, “close reading” was a trend in literary criticism that was vogue in the mid-twentieth century and still has its devotees today. It hasn’t been supplanted as much as augmented by the various ideological critical theories that have held sway for the last half-century or so. By the way, I rather enjoyed reading Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep, which gives his take on what is called “ethical” criticism (in the etymological sense of the term).

    Anyway, regarding the Book of Mormon, I think it, like any book of its length and complexity, invites a number of different kinds of readings. “Close reading” is perhaps what we mean when we say we should study the scriptures rather than merely reading them. The book can, however, be read simply but quite profitably as a narrative or as a history (even as a Marxist dialectic, if you’re into that sort of thing).

    Ultimately, the book goes to great lengths to challenge the reader to make his or her reading both personal and global (“Here’s what’s going to happen to the world and society, and here’s what it means for you”). I also find the authors’ references to the weakness of their writing in comparison to their preaching quite fascinating (phonocentric vs. graphocentric cultures).

    I must add that, of course, that any reading of the Book of Mormon is incomplete and, shall we say, of lesser utility and weight without the Spirit.

  24. I always believe in ready a good book “twice’. Once, non- stop. Then ask myself “What did the book want me to believe?”. Then read or study it anew to fine out if and/or how it reached it’s goal.

  25. #24: Yea, he meant reading.

  26. Unlike, say, the Catholic Church, we have no organized clergy – no endowed, professional readers of our text. Perhaps that is to some extent a loss. There is, I believe, value in having professional readers who can comb archives and learn to read in the context of other objects, producing readings that are decidedly undemocratic, because based on materials that few have access to, but that can also be revealing and provide more “accurate” judgments.

    Can you expand on this? I’d say we most definitely have endowed, professional readers, albeit still unlike the Catholic Church. They’re the ones responsible for glossing the text in the manuals. And they’re also the police, who root out people who are too public about their personal readings of the Book of Mormon. David Wright, who gave perhaps the closest published reading of parts of the BoM to date, was fired and excommunicated for close reading.

  27. I teaching rhetoric & composition to college freshmen (I’m working on my MA in English, which will probably be even worse than my BA in English because it doesn’t qualify me to do anything “better” than the teaching I do now, yet I’ll feel somehow overqualified for “regular” jobs). Anyway, part of my (department-standard) curriculum basically matches what the original post mentions: “if students learn to read actively, then they will become ethical free agents who we no longer be duped by the ideologies they encounter.” My students (and I as well) notice that once you start analyzing texts for their rhetorical techniques, you can’t stop–even when listening to General Conference or reading scriptures.

    Of course, I’m usually not reading religious texts with the intention of sniffing out deception. I actually find that my (rudimentary) knowledge of rhetoric makes my scripture reading more enjoyable. Especially with the Book of Mormon, where so much of the writing is very personal, I like to see how the individual writers make use of different emotional and logical appeals. It reminds me that they were individuals who were so intent on sharing their message that they use every rhetorical techniqe in the book, and occasionally slip into logical fallacies or get carried away with their analogies (AHEM, allegory of the olive tree). I’m not sure that it adds that much to my doctrinal understanding, but it definitely keeps me awake when I’m reading 1st Nephi for the millionth time (or Ether for maybe the 3rd or 4th time). :-)

  28. #27:In my reading of the Introduction in the Book of Mormon, and Moroni 10, I see nothing about reading the book more than once (?). It says :”Written to the Lamanites” (a small group of Latinos) and “The interpretation (is) thereof by the
    gift of God.” Where does it talk about “close reading? Nor do I see any “close reading” of it the first 100 Years of the Church(?)

  29. Stephanie, I’d like to invite you to look for an editing job at McGraw-Hill here in Columbus, Ohio. They email me several times a week telling me that some new production editor slot is available, but when I get to the detailed listing it turns out you have to have majored in English (or in “Reading,” which I didn’t even know was a major!) to apply. It’s stunningly irritating; I put up with it for the one posting every third month or so for a slot that requires a degree in a social science.

    Does “close reading” mean spending half an hour trying to figure out what a particular word in a particular verse could mean and how that influences the interpretation of the verse as a whole? Because if so, apparently my ward’s Gospel Doctrine teacher does that nearly every week.

    Oh, and having taken a (Classics Dept.) class that required us to read Ulysses… bragging about finishing it seems a little like bragging about successfully living on a toilet seat for two years or deliberately eating nothing but grasshoppers for a month. I will never take another class that makes me read something by Joyce again, in any case.

  30. Funny, anyone reading my posts can see my English is at around an 8th grade level. I do have a social science degree.
    My job, (about $100,000 a year), was almost all about “close reading”. That is reading legal file and medical reports for trial evaluation for a large insurance company.

  31. Sarah,

    We read Ulysses along with Anthony Burgess’s companion study volume, which made the grasshoppers more palatable. It was, however, a single work for the whole term, and we mostly got A’s just because we stuck it out. I actually enjoyed it, having read other Joyce works earlier. However, we also took a stab at Finnegan’s Wake, which was totally incomprehensible under any circumstances, and none of us made it more than a nominal number of pages. Just curious, how did you know how we read it, though?

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