"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Wonder of 'The Professor and the Madman'

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At some point, I began feeling that I was watching a great pyramid being built. Only this was not a pyramid of Egyptian stone. It was a pyramid of paper scrolls, each containing one English word, its definition, and its context in the language—one scroll for every word in the language. This physical pyramid of paper filled me with awe for one of the greatest, vastest undertakings in the history of humankind.

The above paragraph is my primary takeaway after reading Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Here is a story of the epic making of an epic work of English literature. As the title indicates, it is also the tale of two different men who wound up on the same journey of a lifetime.

As someone who has read and thoroughly enjoyed two previous books by Mr. Winchester, dealing with large scale events and ideas, I found myself taken by this book’s intimacy. So much of it happens in rooms crammed with books. Yet, as is his interdisciplinary style, Winchester weaves different subjects together in an accessible, thoughtful, even entertaining manner.

Suffice it to say, the making of a dictionary can be as engrossing as a tale of murder. The making of a dictionary or a murderer can also be the story of a demographic, a class, or an entire country at war with itself. One mistake would be to assume dictionaries are only made by the bookish people who read them. Another mistake would be to assume murderers are fundamentally evil persons who have done something we would never do.

I highly recommend The Professor and the Madman, as I also recommend Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded and Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms & a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Experience your world, your heritage, and your language, as they relate inextricably to each other.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In the Burned-Over Bloggernacle

You listen to old Mormon Stories podcasts...

...the way your coworkers binge on new seasons of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. For you, every Sunday night has become like a General Conference Sunday. But instead of MoTab and the Brethren in Salt Lake City, it's high profile ex-Mormons and trendy "Middle Way" types guest-starring on podcasts, played in and out by hip LDS recording artists. You hope Mormon Stories podcasts will help you work through the whole "What the heck happened to my faith?!" thing. Nevertheless...

You feel like you've missed the party...

...which, according to the gospel of anecdote, started around 2002. Thoughtful, inclusive, helpful websites sprung up, all with the mission of assisting people doubting their Mormon faith. 

By 2005, the Bloggernacle was a thing, a dynamic community of thinkers, advocates, and mentors. In 2005, if you found yourself struggling with your faith, suffering severe stress, lost sleep, bouts of dread, lonely moments in locked bedrooms and bathrooms crying... well, if you were feeling all that in 2005, you no longer had to feel it alone. An unusual excitement on the subject of Mormonism was general among all the sites in that region of LDS culture. By 2005, you had the Bloggernacle. 

But 2005 was 10 years or more after your crisis of faith, and 3 or so years after you transitioned out of LDS Church activity. So you missed the party. 

And by 2008 or so, when a well-meaning Home Teacher finally introduced you to the Bloggernacle, you'd already gone through your research phase, written your courageous letter to Church leaders, come out to your loved ones, lost your fiancé, and declared yourself agnostic. By 2008, when the Bloggernacle was in full swing, fellowshipping there seemed like a step backwards. So you didn't bother.

Lo and behold, your old Mission President apostatized and...

you were taken aback. He was someone who only Joseph Smith and your parents could claim to be more significant than, in shaping your spiritual development. 

So you grab a 4-pack of Starbucks frappes and stumble home after dark on a Sunday night. You take yourself back to 2002. Back when you binge-read hardcover Mormon history books into the wee hours. Back before you started drinking coffee, when you stayed awake by pacing back and forth in your dorm room while reading Arrington, Brodie et al. That was what? 15 years ago? That was the last time you'd needed to know so badly where Mormonism stood with you. 

Now it's 2017, and you're older. Now you have to drink coffee AND pace in your apartment to stay awake as you binge on the Bloggernacle. Yet, now you want to be at the party, to revel in the excitement of 2002, when doubting Mormons began crying "Lo here!" and others, "Lo there!" Something for everybody. Devout? Doubting? Defending? Destroying? Pick a pseudonym and raise your Title of Liberty .org. But...

...the Bloggernacle isn't a party anymore.

Now it is full of seasoned bloggers, trained advocates, and non-profit networks. It's no longer Pentecostal Kirtland. Now it's bureaucratic Nauvoo. It's still a place with lots of good people and good opportunities. But the party is over. And you missed it. Or worse yet, maybe the Bloggernacle still is a party but...

You'll never do more than sit in the corner of it, having the occasional awkward conversation. And maybe you can't blame it on your old Mission President. Maybe you're only on the Bloggernacle because after a decade or more of being away, you still haven't found a new "right place" that's a better fit for you.

Granted, you know as much about LDS Church history as any given guest star on Mormon Stories, but you lack trendiness or novelty. You're not divorced, never even married. You don't have a cool career. And nothing you've ever posted online about the LDS Church has gone viral. What is more, you haven't spent years setting up an organization that truly helps people through crisis, or at least gives them comment threads on which to vent via pseudonym. (I wonder if DarthKimball1836 is taken.) Bottom line: even if the Bloggernacle is still a party, you aren't worthy to be the life of it.

Does the Bloggernacle feel burned over? Or just you? Either way, the bonfire that started it all, with the fellowship and the marshmallows, that party's over. You're just another unremarkable apostate. Regardless, you slam back some coffee, press play on an archived Mormon Stories podcast and start pacing your apartment after 11 PM on a Sunday night. You listen to an episode where audiences discover that feminist Kate Kelly didn't die from excommunication. She survived. And she's back with a cool new career, fighting for Planned Parenthood, which you admire. What can you say? Eat your hearts out Netflix fans. Even so. Amen, and Amen.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Revisiting a 'Natural Born Seer'

Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830 by Richard S. Van Wagoner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a recent visit to the historic Kirtland Temple in Ohio, I noticed a new biography of Joseph Smith in the gift shop. My eyes, my nose even, is drawn to displays of fresh hard-bound books. Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830, is a thick volume. A stately green band runs over the dust jacket, like a podium beneath the grayscale bust of Joseph. At a glance, I knew this would be an irresistible treatise on the founder of Mormonism.

The late historian Richard S. Van Wagoner does something compelling with this work. Instead of a birth-to-death biography, Van Wagoner focuses on Joseph’s first 25 years of life. The book ends with Joseph formally organizing the church. Given its origin story approach, the book deals with the least adequately documented, but arguably the most critical, years of Joseph’s existence. As Van Wagoner’s book suggests, it is also the most misunderstood era of Mormonism.

Natural Born Seer comes with all the unflattering revelations one should expect from scholarly biographies of Joseph. Was the aspiring prophet a peep stone using, treasure hunter? Yes. Did he knock back his share of liquor, right alongside his likely alcoholic father? Indeed. Was the Smith family a bunch of lazy, disreputable types? … It’s complicated. Suffice it to say the finances of Joseph’s parents were intensely problematic and unfortunate. The open wallets of eager followers were much needed when the time came to found a religion.

In its candid and diligent rehearsal of the available facts, Natural Born Seer paints a less than endearing portrait of Joseph Smith. Yet, Van Wagoner stops well-short of denouncing Joseph as a true spiritual leader. Ostensibly for the pure sake of getting facts in front of readers, the author all but debunks Joseph’s purported translation by “spectacles” (aka Urim and Thummim), and he goes out of his way to undercut the hindsight primacy LDS Mormons give to the First Vision. Yet he also, along with some of Joseph’s detractors, credits the prophet with achieving something remarkable through charisma and other talents.

Personally, I found my devout skepticism about Joseph Smith validated by this book. Intriguing, but also dismaying, is the frequent use of eye witness accounts supplied via interviews performed years, even decades, after the prophet’s death. However, the author greatly increases this book’s value by beefing up the context of Joseph’s early years. The role of Methodist revivalism comes vividly alive through Van Wagoner’s copious research.

For me, the most unexpected and deeply valued element of the book was getting to know Joseph’s older brother Alvin. I confess I had never given Alvin a lot of thought. He died just as Joseph began bringing forth the Book of Mormon. In a perfunctory way, I understood this to be a tragedy for Joseph. In Natural Born Seer, Alvin’s death is depicted for the seismic shock that it was to the Smith family. Van Wagoner studiously shows just how significant were Alvin’s contributions to the household, and his anticipated critical role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. During the brief span of manhood Alvin lived, he seems to have truly been a beloved son and big brother.

For readers considering a first foray into biographies of Joseph Smith, I strongly recommend back-to-back readings of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. If you have already read those, then I recommend Natural Born Seer for a closer look at Joseph’s early years. Also, know that this book contains two must-read Appendices: 1) Accounts of Claimed Supernatural Visions; 2) Meanings of Lamanite in Mormon Culture.

Rest in Peace, Richard. And thank you.

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