1 Nephi 1-5
“There’s a question at the beginning of this story: what kind of book is so important, what kind of story is so important, that you would kill for it. Literally kill. Well, this is that kind of book.” —Avi Steinberg, The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, & Kansas City, Missouri
I have long suspected that the main character in the Book of Mormon is the Book of Mormon. It is a book whose primary narrative arc tells the story of how it came to be a book–a book about its own bookification. And though all books are about themselves at some level (usually the level of the advanced undergraduate English major writing a term paper), the level of metafictional self-referentiality in the Book of Mormon is something we normally associate with contemporary post-Modern experimental fiction–or at least with Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote.
The first chapter of the original Book of Mormon (which comprises Chapters 1-5 in modern editions) serves as a remarkably coherent introduction to the Book of Mormon’s bookness. This would have been important to a reader in 1830. The first edition does not come with most of the introductory material that we are used to. There are no witness testimonies, no excerpt from the Joseph Smith History, no clearly worded introduction telling readers what they are getting into. The book does have a very short preface, though, explaining the theft of 116 pages of the original manuscript and the translator’s instructions from the Lord not to retranslate the material. I quote it in its entirety here:
As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account, some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again—and being commanded of the Lord that I should not translate the same over again, for Satan had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God, by altering the words, that they did read contrary from that which I translated and caused to be written; and if I should bring forth the same words again, or, in other words, if I should translate the same over again, they would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient un to the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county, New-York. (iii-iv)
This preface tells historians several important things. First, we know that Joseph Smith was so concerned about the prospect of the 116 pages resurfacing as part of a critical narrative that he chose to start out with a pre-emptive rebuttal. The preface also tells us that Joseph believed, probably correctly, that the impending publication of the Book of Mormon had been the cause of considerable speculation in the surrounding community. Its first generation of readers would not be approaching it as a blank slate, but as the subject of fanciful gossip and unbridled speculation. They would already have a set of expectations, most of which would not be fulfilled by the actual text.
It is also important to know what this preface tells readers—which is that they are about to be thrust, in media res, into a story that began 116 pages ago. Nephi tells us this right out of the gate:
And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen; yea, which the Lord had shewn unto him. And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written, for he hath written many things which he saw in vi ions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I shall not make a full account; but I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days—Behold I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after that I have abridged the record of my father, then will I make an account of mine own life. (1 Ne 1:15-16) 
Nephi, in other words, wants us to know the same thing that Joseph Smith wanted readers to know in the preface: that the book we are reading has some gaps in it, especially towards the beginning, where a part of the original story is missing. As readers, we need to make some allowances for this as we engage with the story.
Nephi tells us a lot more useful stuff about the book in the first chapter. For one thing, he pegs it to a very specific time, “the first year of the Reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (1 Ne 1:4). Any reader familiar with the Bible will know that this places the beginning of the Book of Mormon narrative just a few years before the Babylonian captivity. Contemporary Latter-day Saints, of course, learn this very early. But, for the first generation of readers, it was a vital bit of information; this one fact demystifies the text by situating it in a known, or at least knowable, historical and theological context.
But the most important thing that the first Chapter of the Book of Mormon tells us is that we are reading a really important book—maybe the most important book ever. To make this point, about half of the chapter (now chapters 4-5) is devoted to Nephi and his brothers’ attempt to retrieve the brass plates of Laban–which would become the basis for the Book of Mormon.
The story is too familiar to need much of a gloss here. Suffice it to say that Laban, a Jewish priest, is the custodian of the plates that Nephi and his brothers—who are about to sail across the world to set up a new civilization in the Americas—need to get ahold of. If they don’t, they will have no records, no history, no culture, and no scripture. More importantly (to us at least) we won’t get the Book of Mormon, since the brass plates of Laban–the first records that the Lehites obtained and took with them to the Promised Land–formed the nucleus of the book we are holding in our hands.
Nephi and his brothers ask Laban nicely for the plates, which doesn’t work (would you give up a priceless religious artifact to four teenagers who knocked on your door and asked for it?). They also tried bribery, which Laban accepted without actually delivering the plates. And then, in one of the most famous scenes in the Book of Mormon, Nephi is constrained by the spirit of God to kill Laban, to impersonate him in his household, and to kidnap one of his servants at sword point to prevent discovery.
Nephi, in other words, acts in the most un-Nephi way possible in order to obtain the plates. In the first part of the Chapter, Nephi is described as righteous, law-abiding, and devout. But soon thereafter, he commits at least three capital crimes (murder, impersonation, and kidnapping) to secure a written record that he has no legal right to—but that he must obtain in order for the civilization that he is about to create to survive. And, the narrative tells us, God approves—and even constrains—these actions.
Thus, by the end of Chapter One, we know that the book we are holding in our hands is the descendent of a book that was so important that a blameless man was willing to kill for it, to kidnap for it, and to betray the core elements of his being for it. Readers in 1830, who had just paid the equivalent of $50.00 to buy the book from travelling preachers, found out in the first chapter that it was worth far more than they had paid. They understood the importance of a written record to the survival of a civilization. And they knew that they were in possession of a book worth killing for.
 In thirty years of trying, I have never encountered a single supposedly modern, postmodern, contemporary, or radically experimental literary innovation that was not first employed by either Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy (1759-1757) or Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605-1615). We moderns only think we’re clever.
 To allow readers to follow along, I am citing modern chapter and verse numbers, which are not in the original edition. But I am using the text of the 1830 edition, which differs slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, from the modern text