Book review: ‘The Lost Book of Mormon’

9780385535694The premise of Avi Steinberg’s The Lost Book of Mormon is of undeniable interest to many: a quirky, somewhat narcissistic author composes a travelogue as he voyages through the lands of the Book of Mormon: Jerusalem, central America, upstate NY and Missouri. It has the potential of a Sedaris-esque memoir coupled with a somewhat whimsical view of Mormonism — in other words, Mormon-nip. Unfortunately, Steinberg’s tale does not quite live up to its potential, and while some readers may find the book entertaining, it is ultimately a frustrating journey, and perhaps offensive to some.

The Lost Book of Mormon is not a book of non-fiction, at least not entirely. Yes, Steinberg actually travels to these places, but most of the book is made up of the author’s particular internal struggle with writing, or his personal relationships, or some other facet of his personality. He weaves elements of the Book of Mormon (most commonly, its origins) in with his own fears and neuroses. For example, Steinberg’s views of Joseph Smith are largely inseparable from his views of himself; Joseph is an author, Steinberg is an author, and so one becomes like the author in this narrative. If it sounds a little weird and crazy, that’s because it is. This is the source of the book’s charm.

The book is composed of some very long tangents, which Steinberg ultimately wraps into the overall narrative but which feel somewhat like Melville’s long cetological chapters in Moby Dick (I feel somewhat confident that Steinberg might approve of that comparison, as truly understanding Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon itself are obsessions for the author — and Melville himself figures prominently in the book). Unfortunately, the digressions at time overwhelm the narrative. A great portion of Steinberg’s time in Jerusalem are spent in seemingly aimless wander as the author delves into the nature of Jerusalem Syndrome. Much of Steinberg’s experience with the Hill Cumorah Pageant focuses on Steinberg’s own bizarre deceit getting into the pageant. These segues have the potential for great entertainment — and some of them are entertaining, such as Steinberg’s conversation with James Frey. But much of The Lost Book of Mormon feels, well, lost.

It should be noted that Steinberg is not Mormon. Not really close, actually – to the point that his continued exploration of the Book of Mormon seems to have been a big waste of time, spiritually speaking. Readers can expect shallow reviews of wordprint analysis, the Spaulding theory, Salamanders, Sidney Rigdon as author, gold digging and the like as Steinberg explores every potential theory for the Book of Mormon while giving short shrift to Joseph Smith’s own explanation. Those who do not like delving into such concepts would probably do well to steer clear of the book, while those who are not familiar with the Book of Mormon will probably end up not understanding the book at all (while probably convincing themselves that they are now experts). While Steinberg has read the Book of Mormon, it’s not certain whether he ever really has gotten its message. This is probably unrealistic and an unfair expectation, but for a true believer, it is a bit frustrating and alienating at times to witness someone who invests such time and effort tracking through the Book of Mormon while ultimately not really retaining much of the book’s message. Steinberg is not making fun of Mormons, at least not in an easily discernible way; instead, he uses the book and this pilgrimage as a frame story for his own personal wrestlings. In this respect he is not unlike the rest of us.

So, ultimately: it’s at times entertaining, at times distracting, at times frustrating and at times offensive to traditional Mormon sensibilities. Those looking for a Sedaris knockoff can keep looking. Those looking for bona fide exploration of the Book of Mormon can also keep looking. The Lost Book of Mormon is, like its object, an enigmatic text, at times amiable and at times difficult and wandering. Perhaps this was the goal of their respective authors.

Comments

  1. Great work — hadn’t heard of this book. Doesn’t sound like much of a contribution, either to Sedaris-esque travelogues or to the societal/cultural discussion about Mormons in America. Shame, really.

  2. John, I suppose part of my review is holding the book up against expectations and the promise of its author. It’s a decent book. But it’s not what I’d hoped.

  3. John Harrison says:

    I would love to read a Sedaris-like musing on an encounter with Mormonism or even just Mormon scripture. Too bad this doesn’t fit the bill.

  4. John, I’ll let you borrow my copy. It’s as close as anyone has come.

  5. T Gilliam says:

    Hmmm, seems like the author was looking to cash in on the Book of Mormon as an object of great media exposure to further his own reality as comedy writing career.

  6. It doesn’t sound that much different than many Sunday School lessons taught by teachers who are filling in with 30 minutes notice, or a RS lesson that someone with a pet theory spent 3 months “preparing” by trying to make the original assigned lesson and the pet theory, become a tangled mess that no one tries to correct, because no one has any idea where to begin.

    I have a friend who teases me that being Mormon, and believing that eventually something profound will be tucked in somewhere, even when everyone else has admitted it is a completely stupid topic, plot and yet lol keep lockimg.

  7. This book really is a shame. I perused the book in a store, and it is obvious that the topic has so much promise, but the author just fails to deliver. It is just lazy and sloppy.

  8. Ned Casey says:

    Jan S: I haven’t read this book, so I can’t speak about it directly… but I do know this: what’s sloppy and lazy is “perusing” a book in a store and pronouncing harsh judgments on it. Your comment is not respectful to either this book or to this review.

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