“Through our great books we may reenact [the] miracle of creation, which brings light and progress and understanding and pleasure into our minds and hearts.”–Sterling W. Sill, The Majesty of Books
When I was growing up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Church books were a big thing in our house. We lived in Oklahoma, so there weren’t many other Mormons, and there wasn’t an Internet, so we didn’t have Blogs, Facebook, or Amazon. Books from Deseret and Bookcraft, and inspirational tapes from Covenant, were one of our main sources of connection to the mother ship.
We got Church books in several ways. I supposed some people ordered them through the mail and waited a month to get them, but we never did. The local Seventies usually ran a small bookstore out of somebody’s garage, and we got some books and tapes that way. But mainly, we went to Utah every other year or so and hit the Deseret Bookstore. It’s what we saved up for.
I still have a lot of the books that I bought on those trips. Jack Weyland’s Charley and Sam, which I once considered great literature; Brent and Blaine Yorgason’s From First Date to Chosen Mate, which didn’t actually help me get dates; and Lex DeAzevedo’s Pop Music and Morality, which taught me that most of my favorite bands worshiped Satan backwards. And then there were all those books and tapes by Paul Dunn. These books are part of the soundtrack of my life, and I keep them around to remind me of who I have been.
One of them, though, I keep because it has done more to influence the person I am today than any other book I have ever owned: Sterling W. Sill’s The Majesty of Books, published by Deseret in 1974. It is the best Church book ever, and I will never think otherwise, because it was the beginning of my love affair with literature.
Those of you who don’t remember Sterling W. Sill have probably never heard a talk by an LDS general authority dedicated entirely to The Odyssey, Hamlet or Paradise Lost. Sill loved books and spoke of them enthusiastically every chance he got. Often I remember (because we had all of his tapes from Covenant), he would get so caught up describing a great work of literature that he would forget to draw the requisite moral until the very end of his talk, where it sort of felt tacked on. It was the books themselves that mattered.
Though Sill wrote many books of his own for the Church, The Majesty of Books was his masterpiece. It was the Sterling W. Sill-est of all of his books, in which he articulated what mattered most to him. At least that’s what I like to think.
I first read The Majesty of Books when I was seventeen and a junior in high school. At the time, I was a fairly unremarkable C student. My mother, as part of her relief society calling, had been asked to teach a lesson on reading literature for the Meeting Formerly Known As “Cultural Refinement.” She brought me Sill’s book and asked me to help her choose a text–not because she really needed my advice, I know now, but because she was worried that I never did anything except watch TV.
There was a lot to choose from. The Majesty of Books is not just a theoretical account of the importance of great literature. Sill names names. He introduces and glosses dozens of great books. The books that I heard about for the first time at seventeen include:
- Hamlet (OK, I had actually heard of that one)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Paradise Lost
- The Odyssey
- The Divine Comedy
- Sohrab and Rustum
- The Merchant of Venice
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
We settled on The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and I read it. It was perhaps the first important thing I had done in my life, and it changed me. At seventeen, I knew that I had read a great novel and sort of understood it. It gave me ideas. It made me feel important, like I was a person that mattered because I knew about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It made me feel that I mattered because I had read something important. And I have never gotten over that feeling.
Through a series of events that can be directly tied to Sill’s book, I became an English Professor, and I read all of the books (and taught most of them) that Sill discusses in The Majesty of Books. I often disagree with his interpretations these days, but that’s not important. . It doesn’t matter whether or not he got Paradise Lost right. What matters is that he got books right.
I ultimately learned from The Majesty of Books that books don’t have to have an instrumental function to be important because they are important for other reasons. They don’t have to confirm aspects of LDS theology through prooftexts or refute Baptists, Catholics, or “the world.” They don’t have to teach us how to be leaders or parents or prophets. Books are not propaganda tools or instruments of indoctrination.
For Sterling W. Sill, great literature was spiritually ennobling because, when we read something that has been created by a powerful mind, we touch, in a small way, the power of creation. We understand the greatness of God’s creatures, which brings us closer to understanding the power of creation.
Or as the author of the Best Church Book Ever puts it, “through the majesty of books, we may transfer the glory of God into the eternal lives of his children.”