Losing Literate Legacy?

Guest blogger Jamie Huston posts again!

At this time of year when Latter-day Saints remember their cherished heritage of devotion and sacrifice from the pioneers, I hope we keep in mind another aspect of our cultural history: literacy.

One of my favorite books is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death (surprise!), and in chapter four he does an astounding job of describing the climate of nearly ubiquitous literacy in 19th century America. A major part of that culture was oratory, about which Postman lovingly cites anecdote after anecdote, including a paragraph that summarizes some of early America’s most popular areas for oratorical conventions, or, as Postman calls them, “conference centers.”

Gee, where in American society today do we have a Conference Center? It’s no small thing to take pride in the fact that as a people, the Latter-day Saints are one of the few remaining subcultures in America that cherish oratory. When we settle in and focus on talking heads for hours at a time, whether in sacrament meeting or watching General Conference, we’re participating in a part of history that most all of our peers have long since abandoned.

Postman praises 19th century oratory as sounding like it was “pure print…lifted from the page.” Though there are certainly stylistic differences between our 19th and 20th century leaders—between, say, Orson Pratt and Neal A. Maxwell—this characterization could well still be applied to our leaders today. It’s a blessing that our Conference talks are largely delivered by men and women whose linguistic training was developed before the drastic lowering of educational expectations for America in the second half of the 20th century. Will General Authorities fifty years from now be as articulate? They might use a different idiom, but I hope they will be.

Another evidence of literacy among our elite echelon is the vast array of sources used in their work. It’s not unusual at all to see an Ensign article of Conference talk annotated with two or three dozen citations from throughout the Standard Works, which suggests a fluency with those texts borne of much more intense study than just passively sitting through Sunday School.

But beyond that, their personal reading is impressive, and I’m not just referring to President Monson’s penchant for English literature (though that is one of my favorite things about our prophet!). I recently read a chapter in Henry B. Eyring’s To Draw Closer To God, where he cited a study about the physiological effects of lying from Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts On Listening To Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. No research assistant provided that quote; it came from President Eyring’s own reading. I imagine President Eyring had read it because Lewis’s essays have a deep grounding in science, as does President Eyring himself. I picked up Lewis’s book from the library last week. It’s not bad; President Eyring has good taste.

In fact, after President Hinckley passed away earlier this year, I went back and read Standing For Something. After twenty pages, I was impressed by how many references he made. I started over and took notes on them. Pretty soon I had to divide my notes into multiple columns—scriptures, statistics, historical allusions, quotations from historical leaders, poets, and Shakespeare. This, for a mainstream work of didactic inspiration. Imagine if he’d been penning a scholarly tome!

If there is such great literacy among us, why the pessimistic query in the title of this post? Because, sadly, I worry that we are letting that part of our heritage, like the thrift and absolute loyalty of so many of the pioneers, erode.

Notice that my examples so far, even the contemporary ones, center around older generations. I’ve noticed in the homes of the many senior citizen members of the Church in which I’ve been that more often than not there is a little library area with a pleasant commingling of worn out sets of the classics and a hefty sampling of the best LDS publications from the middle of the last century. The homes of people under fifty now, even the active, educated ones, are much more likely to have a plasma screen TV and expensive decorations.

When I joined the Church in the early 1990’s, I remember feeling instantly comfortable at a Deseret Book, with its rows upon rows of thick books that fairly worshipped history, profound thought and language, and logical analysis and research. Maybe it’s a Las Vegas thing, but most of those titles are gone now, the rambling sections labeled “Church History” and “Old Testament” and “General Authorities” now compressed into only a few shelves, with the rest of the space now taken up by things that were hardly there at all fifteen years ago: “self-help” and “inspirational” titles and conventional, predictable fiction (mostly for women—for any other men worried that our gender has all but completely abdicated our literacy, novelist Ian McEwan’s little experiment provides a nervous prophetic tale). Oh yeah, and movies. Lots of movies. Mostly comedy.

There is one saving grace, though. As our Muslim friends render it in the Qur’an, we are “people of the book.” Our prophets have done us—and our literacy—a huge favor by ingraining in our collective mind the urgent priority of scripture study. The central role of The Book of Mormon in our lives is an amazing mental boon. Consequently, we’ve been able to stave off most of the collapse of literacy that has befallen the rest of America (so far). In college, a literature professor told me that he always knew who the religious kids in his class were, because they were the ones who came in already understanding symbolism, themes, and the difficult language of ancient writing. My own experience as a teacher yields the same conclusion: Mormon kids are more likely to be readers than other youth…but probably not as likely as they would have been twenty or thirty years ago.

So it’s not all gloom and doom, but any degree of loss here is to be lamented. I’m reminded of Omni 1:17, where we’re told that the people of Zarahemla’s “language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them, and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.” We might not end up morphing into a bunch of grunting apostates because we let our literacy fade away, but it certainly wouldn’t help. We’d be forsaking one of the most beloved aspects of life among our ancestors—language—and we’d be doing their memory a disservice by valuing so little what they loved so much.


  1. In my family’s home, we have about an equal ratio of books to movies in our collection. I have several books on my nightstand that I read in the evenings (currently I’m going through the Virginia Quarterly Review, a subscription I recently purchased—wonderful writing).

    I, too, lament how much focus there is these days on the flashier, less thought-provoking drab than in the past. But I think that the problem lies in the explosion of not only publications (thousands upon thousands of books are published yearly these days) but of everything else that competes with your limited, valuable time. In the 19th century, what could people do in their leisure? The reason why Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyesvski wrote thousand page tomes was because the winters were long in Russia and there wasn’t anything else to really do but sit around and read.

    However, in all this explosion of writing (and other forms of art), there are plenty of great writers. Finding them is tougher today than in the past because there are just so many of them.

  2. Jamie,

    I am interested in your take since you like Postman. I recall that when I read the book and more so with technopoly that our conference addresses were an example that came to mind of technology changing the message. It seems to me that both the move to television and subsequent move from the tabernacle have in fact changed the nature and character of the discourses.

    Certainly there are things to laud but it has changed in my opinion.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Some good thoughts here Jamie, thanks.

  4. Jamie,
    We decorate our home in Early Library. We could use few more bookshelves actually. Soon we will have to get rid of all the furniture and people to accommodate the books. We’re pathetic in the pop culture department though. We’re a little unbalanced that way.

  5. Hi jamie,

    My wife managed an LDS bookstore in the 1990’s. The thick doctrinal books were consistent undersellers. Eventually my wife put most of them on sale and replaced the shelving space with junk from sounds of zion.

    The knick knacks, fiction, paintings, etc are what sells in the LDS bookstores in her exp. Scriptures are a big exception to this general rule. Scriptures sell like crazy and were constantly on back order.

  6. I don’t know if it’s entire honest to say we “cherish oratory” heaven knows I didn’t last sacrament meeting or even some conference talks for that matter. Might I suggest you read “Everything Bad is Good For You.” as an healthy anti-thesis to your point however.

  7. A couple of thoughts on this interesting topic. First, I worked for a religion professor at BYU for a year or so and it was not uncommon to receive requests from general authorities asking for references, quotes, etc. So, while I’m certain some of them do their own research, many at least supplement their work. Second, Nibley occasionally addressed this issue, especially noting that in his grandfather’s day various Apostles would gather for dinner and spend the time trying to outdo each other in quoting Shakespeare. Finally, Kent Brown once related a story about being in the Near East (can’t remember where) with Pres. Hinckley, encountering a Greek inscription, and being suitably impressed when Pres. Hinckley translated it on the fly. He was a Classics major, I believe.

  8. Mormon literacy is fascinating, with our Deseret Alphabet, early antipathy towards fiction, prophetic calls to get as much education as we can, and the rest. It always surprises me when I crack open a nineteenth century pioneer diary and read how the author is currently reading the History of Rome or something. I shouldn’t be though.

    I think that there are significant conservative trends in Mormon liberal education. Where else do you regularly find organists? I haven’t read People of Paradox but I think that there is a general tradition to music, dance, theater, and literature that is persistent in Mormonism that is beyond the standard socioeconomic non-Mormon equivalent (all based on anecdote mind you).

  9. Steve Evans says:

    J., by “liberal education” you mean “liberal arts education,” no?

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Got it.

  11. Jamie,

    One of the more substantive posts I’ve seen in a while. I especially recommend the link to the City Journal story. Good stuff.

    Right now, though, my wife and my daughter and daughter-in-law’s have been burning through the Twilight books. Interesting, but after reading all three of those published to date, my wife picked up a copy of Henry James The Bostonians, feeling like she needed some protein after a lot of sweets.

    I have also noticed the broad background of reading that our leaders seem to have had. Makes me a little prouder of my liberal arts degree, which may have done more than qualify me to live at home with my parents.

  12. There’s a great quote in the wikipedia article on “Liberal Education”:

    “The aim of liberal education is to create persons who have the ability and the disposition to try to reach agreements on matters of fact, theory, and actions through rational discussions.” Andrew Chrucky

    Any sign of that here in the bloggernacle lately?:)

  13. I thought that was why we were all here: through rational discussion to ensure that everyone eventually agrees with me. What other reason could there be?

  14. Eric Russell says:

    “she needed some protein after a lot of sweets”

    You need more than just some protein after that stuff, Kevin, like Pepto-Bismol.

  15. So let’s look at some of the literate things we don’t do any more as a general church population:

    Road shows are almost completely gone.

    We used to have speech contests in YM/YW.

    I performed in and watched dozens of ward and stake plays as a teenager growing up.

    RS Readers Theater.

    Now, we play basketball and broom hockey. MCQ, we can agree that it’s slipping away from us?

    Actually, Eric, I haven’t read the Twilight stuff myself, but my wife and I have had some interesting discussions about the symbolism and nuances of a Mormon writer and her vegan vampires.

  16. Man, roadshows. I hated them when I was a kid, but now that I don’t have to be in one I love the idea.

  17. I share your enthusiasm for Mormonism’s literary tradition.

    I keep hoping that they’ll bring back the 1960’s Relief Society curriculum “Out of the Best Books” (except this time for Elder’s Quorum, ha ha).

    Can anyone with more information or first-hand experience comment on that series of classes?

  18. Mark B. says:

    One day we’ll have to re-write (and then film, direct to DVD) the third and fourth chapters of I Nephi to tell the story of the boys’ return to Jerusalem to get the DVD player. Otherwise the rising generation just won’t get it.

    It’s exciting to hear literary allusions in the sermons of the apostles and prophets. Partly because recognizing the allusion puts one into a small secret society of the literate (maybe we can create a new literati, and partly because the allusion enriches the experience.

    One of my favorites:

    At the dedication of the Preston England Temple, Elder Holland spoke. Speaking of the blessing of having another temple in England and the miracle it was to have the dedication services, he said that “gentlemen in England now abed
    shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”


    (And if you can find his talk somewhere, you’ll find that statement–I’ve been looking today, without success.)

  19. Mark B. says:

    Kevin’s mention of speech contests reminded me of a speech I gave in our ward’s speech contest sometime in the very early 1970s–on civil disobedience.

    Too bad I didn’t prepare the end of the speech–it sort of dwindled into rot at the end. It would have been fun to take that speech to the next level.

  20. I am glad the Brethren quote from a wide variety of sources, apart from the standard works, themselves, and their predecessors. Many of us do the same in our talks and lessons.

    While there is some ambiguity in official direction on the matter, culturally, in our time, using sources outside of official Church correlated materials seems to be significantly discouraged. I suppose it might be permissible to quote Shakespeare, but only if one of the Brethren has done so in Conference, and only the part of Shakespeare that has been so quoted.

    I have been thinking of publishing a “Shakespeare, Other Classics and Broadway Plays Especially for Mormons”, consisting only of those portions that have been quoted in conference (or other correlated materials). We members can then comfortably read it and quote from it in talks and lessons, knowing that it will all be uplifting to us and others, because it has been “pre-approved.” I would need some substantial help in putting this together. Any takers? I think we could make a mint.

  21. Mark B., maybe you could call your cenacle “The Happy Few.”

  22. “The Latter-day Saints are one of the few remaining subcultures in America that cherish oratory.”
    You have got to get out more. Listen to some Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals. Turn on Reverend Jake. If you want oratory back, you need some fist pounding, some fire and brimstone, some standing ovations, tears and shouts of “Amen!”.

  23. J. Stapely,

    It was not just Mormons who disdained fiction. From this article:

    At the time, you had to be fourteen, and a boy, to get into the Astor Library, which opened in 1854, the same year as the Boston Public Library, the country’s first publicly funded city library, where you had to be sixteen. Even if you got inside, the librarians would shush you, carping about how the “young fry” read nothing but “the trashy”: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books). Samuel Tilden, who left $2.4 million to establish a free library in New York, nearly changed his mind when he found out that ninety per cent of the books checked out of the Boston Public Library were fiction. Meanwhile, libraries were popping up in American cities and towns like crocuses at first melt. Between 1881 and 1917, Andrew Carnegie underwrote the construction of more than sixteen hundred public libraries in the United States, buildings from which children were routinely turned away, because they needed to be protected from morally corrupting books, especially novels.

  24. As for organists, it may once have been the case that they were over-represented in the LDS population, but I doubt this is still the case. Since one can count on his hands the number of paid organist positions in the church, there isn’t much incentive to excel. The quality of organists and organs in many other denominations now exceeds those of the LDS church by a wide margin.

  25. Researcher says:

    I know a number of LDS organists who play professionally for other denominations. (Does my anecdotal evidence cancel out Bill’s?)

  26. No, it confirms it, since it shows which denominations value professionalism.

  27. Bob, there is a big difference between the type of literate oratory described in this post and fist-pumping, Bible-pounding, hellfire and damnation sermonizing. Rousing emotionalism is not necessarily articulate oration.

  28. Bill, “value” and “pay for” are not the same thing. Sure, there *might* be more professional organists playing in other churches, but if you compare the number of youth and adults who play the piano and other instruments, you will get a better picture of “value”.

  29. C Jones says:

    I have my grandmother’s set of Out of the Best Books, and I treasure them. When I look through them, little bits of paper fall out– scraps of her poetry, an old map, her Relief Society membership card for 1964-65 (yearly dues 50 cents).

    The first volume begins with a 12 page primer on The Appreciation and Criticism of Literature.” Here’s a sample:
    “The vagueness of mere appreciation is fatal because fool’s gold has a deceptive glitter to the casually discriminating glance. We must learn precise differences if we are to estimate value.” And then several pages on four different critical positions:

    1- Ultimate, transcendental values
    2- The work itself
    3- The author and his environment
    4- The synthesis that has emerged from the audience

    And a few of the chapters:
    What makes a Great Book by Mortimer Adler
    Ode on a Grecian Urn
    The Celestial Omnibus by E.M. Forster
    Poetry by Marianne Moore
    Chapters on Wordsworth, Browning, Blake, Dickenson, Hopkins, Sitwell
    The Necklace by Guy DeMaupassant
    Quality by John Galsworthy
    Three Arshins of Land by Leo Tolstoi
    which bring us up to page 132 of a total of 481 pages of poetry and short stories along with critical commentary on each. I would love, love, love to have something similar in RS today.

  30. Marjorie Conder says:

    I was part of the Out of the Best Books era and still have all my books. It was a great time. However,I doubt it will ever come back. I think the problem is the internationalization of the Church. Whose literary tradition would receive perference? (Especially since we apparently want to be pretty standard across the Church.) Certainly a “culture” (I’m thinking “Zion” here)needs a shared canon. For Latter-day Saints that shared canon appears to be moving towards, the Scriptures, hymns, and the Presidents of the Church manuals–all translated into virtually every language where there are LDS. Also the Presidents manuals are given away. I imagine there are Latter-day Saints in many parts of the world (including parts of the USA) where these books make up most or even all of the family library. It is also important that these books are used as the basis for lessons, so active members also have some idea of the content of the books, even if they are marginal readers. (And I think just having these books in the homes of members will make a collective difference in literacy over the long haul.)

  31. #27: Ray, I would say that 90% of great oratory has been loud. Who in the Mormon Church use this “type” of oratory?

    “Evidence of literacy among our elite echelon is the vast array of sources used in their work.” Don’t try this in your Sacrament talk, stick with the Standard Works.

  32. Mark IV says:


    I’m going to quibble just a little with a couple of your premises.

    I agree with you that people who speak in conference are pretty bright, but I also think some are a lot more literate than others. Some of our leading brethren are obviously very comfortable talking about sports and reading their talks of the prompter, and I think that is just how it should be in a church where we have all kinds of people. We quote Edgar A. Guest from the pulpit in GC as much as we quote Shakespeare. That doesn’t bother me, at least not much, but it does tend to undermine your argument.

    Second, I agree that it would do kids these days a lot of good if they read more books, but hasn’t every generation in history regarded the following one as a bunch of whippersnappers? And don’t the whippersnappers always see their folks as a bunch of doddering old fogies? I remember rolling my eyes at my parents, and my kids roll their eyes at me. I think there has to be a more productive way to make the point.

  33. Jim Donaldson says:

    I would say that 90% of great oratory has been loud. Who in the Mormon Church use this “type” of oratory?

    I think that the content of the speech changes when you have a good public address system. Brigham Young and the brethren of his day composed (or in BY’s case, improvised) their comments so they could be spoken loudly from the pulpit. This gives a particularly bracing and forthright quality to their discourses. With a good PA system, we can almost whisper and modulate our volume at will–but it also changes the content and often makes what we say more equivocal.

    I was scheduled to speak in sacrament meeting one day when the power in our chapel went out, I gave the same talk, but the tone of it changed entirely when I had to speak so loudly that they could hear me in the back row.

  34. #34: The point made was “The Latter-day Saints are one of the few remaining subcultures in America that cherish oratory.”. I disagreed with that. I believe outside the “elite echelon ” (maybe even inside it), open oratory is discouraged by the Church.
    My understanding of this comes mostly from reading the Mormon Blogs. That members are told what their talk will be, and not to quote outside of Church literature. Sorry if I have misread.

  35. #34: Are you saying BY and others needed to yell in the Tabernacle to be heard? Are you saying FDR, JFK, MLK, etc., spoke quietly when they had a good PA system?

  36. “That members are told . . . not to quote outside of Church literature.”

    That is not written anywhere in official statements of the Church and certainly not followed anywhere I’ve lived.

  37. If oratory is excellent language, beautifully delivered, I don’t see how you can make the claim that LDS are even adequate at oratory. Yes, even our leaders. The last interesting speaker I heard in a general meeting was Sherri Dew. Their words may make excellent use of language, but the delivery is almost always deadly dull. I blame the teleprompter. Plus, somehow along the line, everybody decided that “funereal” was a good tone of voice for delivering a speech.

  38. Ann, hear, hear!

  39. #38: Ann, maybe I am just showing my age again (63). But I do remember great oratory (yes loud), by men like Hugh B. Brown. Speakers with body language, and voice power.
    I am even old enough to have spoken in the Tabernacle myself.

  40. Ann, “deadly dull”? Did you listen much to President Hinckley? or Elder Maxwell? or Marlin Jensen? or Elder Uchdorf? or Elder Bednar? or Elder Wirthlin? Those are the ones who jump to mind immediately, without any real attempt to think about it.

    I agree that, however necessary it is for practical reasons, the teleprompter always complicates and can suppress excellent oratory.

  41. Ray, 41, yes, yes, yes, no, no, no and I stand by my statement. Reading aloud in a flat voice lacking tension, emotion, excitement or intensity is not oratory. The first two are dead (#2 for some time now) and I haven’t been to a general conference since #4 & #5 were called as apostles. Maxwell’s delivery was about as exciting as listening to someone read a grocery list. I don’t know why everybody was always so googly about how fabulous he was, except perhaps that he used ooooooh…..alliteration!

    Not to nitpick over details, but it’s quite a stretch to extend the idea “we have a few adequate speakers among our churches top fifteen ministers” to “we are a church that treasures and presents great oratory.”

    Elder Jensen was wonderful in the PBS special (as was Elder Holland).

    Young Mr. Obama’s oratory blows them ALL away.

  42. #42: Also , I think great oratory is a debate between the speaker and the group. And the speaker not only “wishes for…”, he/she demands it.