Three strange ways I’ve aquired LDS books

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Emily Debenham is a three-time Mormon Lit Blitz finalist. She loves ancient history, Mormon literature, and telling herself stories. 

There are two things you need to know about my younger self.  First, I was a voracious reader. Second, I was obsessed with LDS fiction.  The combination of being obsessed with a niche market of books and a voracious reader meant that I constantly ran out of books.  So, here are three tales of the strangest ways I acquired my next LDS literature hit.

Story One.  My high school creative writing teacher was extremely pro-arts and enthusiastic in supporting students literary interests.  This led her to convince several of us to attend a small, one-day conference hosted by the Red Rock Writer’s Guild.  We filled out conference application forms and paid registration fees. This small ritual served as one of those magical bridges that bestowed a transformation of adulthood to my teenage self. My first writing conference ever.  We met in a little white building near the St. George Opera House and Brigham Young’s Winter home.  There, we mostly listened to some amazing poetry readings.

However, not everyone there was a poet.  One gentleman had self-published a doctrinal book about the great flood in the times of Noah.This was in the old days when self-published meant risking financial suicide and the mockery of all your literary peers.  So, this guy, although extremely intelligent, was probably one slice of bread short of a sandwich.  Despite this, he was an interesting and thought-provoking speaker and I enjoyed his presentation.  I liked his lecture enough to buy his book for my dad for Father’s day.  My dad genuinely loved the book and was delighted to read it.  He passed it off to me when he was done reading it and I didn’t read the entire book but read enough extensive passages that I got the overall concept.

Fast forward to my BYU years.  My roommate, who was also from St. George, but whom I didn’t actually meet until college in Provo, mentioned that she had a super crazy grandpa that self-published a book about the great flood in the bible and that he had all these weird theories.  To which I responded, “You mean x theory?” She gave me a weird look.  Yep, I had read her crazy grandpa’s self-published book.

Story Two.  My dad was a super-fan of Hugh Nibley and some sort of acquaintance-friend of his.  The only time I ever remember meeting Nibley was when I was too young to realize who he was.  My dad and I were walking through the mall (Nibley must have been doing a book signing) and my dad got super excited to go and talk to a man who he said was a friend.  So, I waited a little bit away from them both.  They talked for a long time while I waited out of earshot.  When my dad returned he was so happy and excited. I asked him who his friend was and he responded that it was Hugh Nibley and that he was a writer.  That’s how I learned that my dad’s favorite writer was Hugh Nibley.  When I was in my late teens, my dad passed on to me some pre-publication manuscripts of Nibley’s works.  I have no idea how he talked Nibley into giving these papers to him, but they were bound like they’d come from the local Office Max. I read about thirty pages before Nibley’s text discussed specifics from temple ceremonies.  As a conservative Mormon, I knew I wasn’t supposed to know about the temple before I went in the temple.  So, I told my dad about it and he shrugged his shoulders and told me it was my choice to read it or not.  I was very suspicious of the manuscript after that.  After all, it wasn’t officially published and since it wasn’t officially published it probably had stuff in there that wasn’t supposed to be.  So, I stopped reading it.  Post endowment me agrees with pre endowment me–that manuscript did have specifics that were dangerously close to crossing the line.

It is only upon writing this essay that I realized how significant it was that I was reading Hugh Nibley’s pre-publication manuscripts. This is bizarre! Seriously? I’m asking myself if this memory is for real? Was it really pre-publication manuscripts? Why were they bound like they were from the local Office Max? Maybe it was a leaflet of articles? But I’m certain it was in book format. It wasn’t a bunch of little articles and it wasn’t one long article either. It was a book, non-traditionally bound, and my dad said Nibley had given it to him.  Who knows what I was actually reading!

Story Three.  Another source of off the beaten path LDS market books was a small family-owned independent bookstore that is now out of business.  It was located near the St. George Tabernacle, tucked into the historic district of St. George.  Since the bookstore had a lot of deep local connections they stocked books that the Deseret Book refused to carry.  There were a lot of works there written by local authors.  The store was a treasure trove of the esoteric and rare title.  This is how I got introduced to Marilyn Arnold’s novels.

She wrote books that were distinct from most mainstream LDS fiction.  They had their own style that I don’t quite know how to describe years after the fact.  I read them before I’d discovered the words used to understand fiction and how it worked.  Before I had the contextual reading background to understand the traditions she was playing in.  That was one of the weird aspects of reading LDS fiction too.  I read out of my age range frequently.  So, I don’t think I can properly explain how I understood her work then.  I thought her books were a little boring but her voice intrigued me because it was so different.  She wrote about the rural, small-town setting in a way that made it feel beautiful and magical.  A portrayal that I felt conflicted with my experience of the rural and small town, but that’s why her books intrigued me so much–her words transformed my world into something it was not.  I found it fascinating.  Although I do think the books lacked for plot.

This little bookstore provided a unique experience even in the era of independent bookstores, providing a constant stream of unique and rare LDS literature titles.  The only place I’ve had a fraction of a similar experience is at the BYU Bookstore in Provo, Utah.  It is incredible to realize how much our world has changed.  My community bookstore is now a relic from a past literary era.  How I find, share, and read books has dramatically changed and these physical spaces of discovery are extremely rare.

Comments

  1. I love hearing stories of how others acquire their LDS library. As you relate, there is often an interesting story behind the books on the shelf. As my parents downsized and moved out of the home they lived in for 30+ years I’m in the process of expanding my own library as I inherit my Dad’s collection. And his collection is extraordinary given his particular interest in Church history and inclination to stroll through the independent book sellers offerings every time he visited SLC and pick up whatever piqued his interest or fleshed out gaps in his collection including some rare editions. My enthusiasm at loading up nearly 20+ boxes of books led to many funny looks from siblings and my wife as they all wondered, “In the day and age of the internet, why does anyone want a massive wall of paper that largely just collects dust?” People do not appreciate that while items like the 7 volumes of Church History are available online as well as valuable resources like the Joseph Smith Papers Project which make them searchable, there are huge swaths of Mormon insight and history that simply are unavailable online and require access to the hardbound published material. I’m always fascinated when I encounter others who have a large library and love the unique insights that can come from exploring their shelves.

    A thought on your Nibley manuscript. It probably was a collection of his articles and could have very likely been unpublished. Nibley often bound these articles up as part of the reading he made available to students and for various symposia. If you ever visited his office at BYU his secretaries maintained a massive collection of filing cabinets full of his papers and there were sections available for a student to take copies from. I have a couple of similar bound articles that I picked up from his office when I was at BYU. I had the good fortune of taking one of Nibley’s Book of Mormon courses (at the time the Book of Mormon was split into 2 semester courses) at BYU while he was still teaching. I had already completed the 2 semesters required but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sit in and learn from Nibley directly. Even as a Sophomore RM in his 4th Semester I had no idea what I was getting myself into as I had very little classics education outside of what I had gleaned in my study of the Greek and Hebrew philosophers and many years with the French language. Unlike most professors, Nibley went on far ranging discussions of the themes apparent in the particular chapter of the day and as a result might spend the entire Semester on a single book within the Book of Mormon. I recall on that first day sitting dumbfounded as he unleashed a PhD level treatise on Roman and Egyptian society as it related to a specific verse in 3 Nephi which led me to turn to the student behind me – interestingly enough it was Russell Arben Fox of BCC fame – and inquired, “Are we going to be tested on this?” Russell just smiled and said, “Probably not in the way you’re used to. Sit back, take notes, and absorb.”

  2. Makes me wonder what Nibley would have done with a blog.

  3. Wonderful post that reminded me what a wonderful part bookstores have played in my life, and in my love of literature. Thank you for posting this thoughtful piece.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Alain, I never had Nibley for an honest to goodness class, but I well remember the filing cabinets of his stuff on the fourth floor of the HBLL. I think I still have some items that came from those cabinets.

    Emily, I wonder whether your second story about Nibley might have been drafts from his Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (first edition published in 1975). You can tell from the subtitle that he was pretty adventurous with the temple symbolism in that volume.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    “The only place I’ve had a fraction of a similar experience is at the BYU Bookstore in Provo, Utah.”

    Last fall I visited the BYU campus for the first time in many years. The BYU Bookstore was now labelled merely “The BYU Store,” and they weren’t kidding. The book and magazines on the main floor were gone, replaced by lots of clothing. I asked where the books were and was directed upstairs, which I used to know as the place for textbooks. The textbooks took up less of that floor than before, and there was a modest, indistinguished section of general interest books. I asked where Mormon books were and was directed to the basement. The breadth there was not what it once was. I left disheartened and clinging to the hope that current students have their own, different ways of encountering the things I did browsing display shelves conveniently located in main traffic areas of the BYU bookstore.

  6. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you Emily. My mind filled with my own memories as I read your post. We had several unpublished manuscripts by Hugh Nibley on our bookshelves and Marilyn Arnold lives up the street from me. She recently was a guest speaker at our local library. Love the smile on my face.

  7. Geoff - Aus says:

    What a different church it is for those of us who live overseas and only had the correlated church until blogs came along.

  8. Thanks for these poignant and amazing stories. Hooray for book-nerdery!

    The fate of the erstwhile BYU Bookstore is a travesty.

  9. Those are some good stories. I believe I’ve visited that St. George bookstore; I grew up in souther Utah. I went to a League of Utah Writers conference several years ago when Orson Scott Card gave the keynote address, and I’ll never forget it.