Best. Church. Book. Ever.

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“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.”

Comments

  1. it's a series of tubes says:

    How have I not heard of this until now? Just ordered a used copy from Amazon. Thanks!

  2. This became my favorite book so many years ago. I was just talking about it last night to my kids. It was the impetus to most of my life choices in education, it was the plan for my reading lists, it was one of the greatest influences outside the Book of Mormon upon my life and my testimony. I LOVE IT.

  3. “It doesn’t matter whether or not he got Paradise Lost right. What matters is that he got books right.”

    This is such an important observation — and it’s where we often go wrong as a sub-culture. We’re only now, in the last decade or so, coming out of the twentieth century “there’s only one right way to [X]” phase of our sub-culture’s worldview. It’s our parent’s generation’s worldview. There’s only one right way to mow the lawn or take a roadtrip. It truly unsettles our parents and grandparents when some of us now allow ourselves to believe and say that there are many “right” ways to do this or that, or understand this or that. What matters are the bigger issues — in this case, “getting books right” and not who is objectively correct about “the one right” interpretation of a particular book.

  4. Mark Burns says:

    I also was inspired by Sterling Sill and had this advantage you didn’t: my Mom ran the stake bookstore so it was OUR garage that had the most Church books anywhere and I got to read all of them I wanted. I do have to say, though, that the Church in my case mostly killed my intellectual life rather than inspired it like it did in your case. I had a great experience learning at BYU but spending 30 hours a week for 5.5 years as the bishop of what was more or less a slum ward with needs that were about 100 times more than our resources was the absolute death of my active reading life. So the the Church is all pro-intelligence in theory but then sometimes kills the kinds of extra time that non-Mormons might have to learn. It can make you so busily engaged in a million good causes that it’s all you can do to get thru a page of the Book of Mormon each day.

  5. I loved Sterling W. Sill! He was one of the greats and had a great influence on my life. I remember in many of his books he drew on literature and life. What a great reminder of a wonderful general authority. Thanks for doing this!

  6. Amen. This book and the leadership trifecta lived on my parents shelves for years. Our local area had a small, garage sized, tiny shop. It was where I first read Carol Lynn Pearson and the Yorgeson brothers – Charlie’s Monument sitting cross legged on the faded, flat carpet. Our copy of Elder Sill’s book came by virtue of 100% church attendance.

    Our Bishopric encouraged youth and primary kids to attend church by publicly awarding books, cassettes, and the like in Sacrament Meeting. The gift and the moment stuck with a kid. There were rewards for effort and little personal glory. It was from this experience that I received this book. It was the luck of the draw, but a perfect selection for me.

    Thanks for the reminders and trip down memory lane. I loved both of ours.

  7. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    As usual. Mike you speak for me!

  8. Michael, where did you live in Oklahoma? I served in the OTM from ’87-’89.

  9. Charlie’s Monument. That was a kick in the gut for a grade schooler.

  10. Yeah john f. (4:16) it was. It still does. I want to win the war of this life because of that book.

  11. U240, I lived in Tulsa from 73-79 and Enid from 79-84. Then I went to BYU, but the rest of the family stayed in Enid.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    My dad was a huge Sterling Sill fan, and had a lot of his books. He was also a professor of education, so it seems to have been catching.

  13. Emily U says:

    What a delightful account of your love for literature. I don’t know Sterling Sill but now I’d like to. I feel like I’m a late bloomer in loving books – I enjoyed reading some of the classics in high school, especially the Brontes, but I felt like I had to study science in college if the world was ever going to take me seriously. I wish I’d given myself permission to take a literature class or two. Now I’m always reading and books are as real (or more real) to me than real life. I love the idea that great books reenact the miracle of creation.

    Incidentally, I think I first knew I was a feminist while reading Jack Weyland’s Brenda at the Prom. I couldn’t stand the superior view the boy in the story had of himself, and how he essentially got his way in the end (chastely, of course, but gallingly still). I loathed the book but finished it because it was a birthday gift from my grandparents.

  14. Jason K. says:

    Preach!

  15. I listened to Elder Sill on the KSL radio and wrote down many of his words. I loved him. Thanks for bringing up his name. I love talking about people long dead. Can you imagine the thrill a person long dead must feel when his name is said once again in the Temple? Off subject, but thanks.

  16. Sounds like an interesting read. But as far as Mormon books go, it would be hard to supplant Nibley’s works, particularly “Approaching Zion.”

  17. Ryan Mullen says:

    “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.”

    I love this!

  18. Shortly after joining Signature Books in 1985, I got a call from Sterling Sill asking me to visit him at his office in the Church Office Building. When I arrived, it became clear that he wanted to talk about a book manuscript. Blind, he asked me to read to him portions of the manuscript. As I did, he listened closely and slowly tears began to well up in his eyes. Soon they were running down his face. By now retired, Bro. Sill realized that there wasn’t the same market for his books as there once was. I admit to feeling uncomfortable and saddened, but I was also very touched by Bro. Sill’s expression of emotion. The memory of this is as fresh as ever.

  19. FarSide says:

    David O. McKay was another church leader who had an abiding love for great literature. He referred to the authors of such works—who he frequently quoted in his sermons—as “minor prophets.”

  20. Leonard R says:

    Thanks for the memories, both of the book (also read from my parent’s book case), and of spending all my spare money at “remote” LDS Bookstores (mine was the bookstore in Cardston, Alberta, which was 4.5 hours from where I lived in the middle of the prairies.

  21. BHodges says:

    Sill was before my time so I’m glad I got to learn a bit about him here. Thanks, Michael.

    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.

  22. Sterling W. Sill was an amazing self made man. He read many great works of literature and wrote the important passages in spiral notebook. He then memorized the quotes. He said we wanted to run them through his brain until the thoughts
    were his. Truly ” As a Man Thinketh ” . He was my inspiration.