‘Tis the time of year we engage in exercises of our gratitudinal capacity. I though I would share five books that have shaped my conceptions of Mormon literature for the better. I encourage you to share your own beloved books in the comments.
If you’re not sick of me talking about this novel yet you will be soon. There’s a reason I chose it as the first book to be replublished by Peculiar Pages with critical response and commentary. Because I’m convinced it can handle the attention and can singlehandedly get doubters to rethink their dismissal of early Mormon writers.
Dorian Trent is a young Mormon man dealing with the same issues young Mormons still deal with. Love and education and faith, and the co-mingling of exultation and disappointment. Reading Added Upon was fun., but though startlingly ambitious, the book has serious flaws. Compare that first attempt to his last attempt (I read them almost back-to-back) and we can, in two quick reads, experience the breadth of the Mormon literary scene in microcosm. Don’t dally. Read Dorian.
And thank you, Brother Anderson. We all owe you more than we realize.
Card, Orson Scott
A Storyteller in Zion
Once upon a time, I used to read this book every year or two. This and Card’s other writings about writing were fundamental to my understanding of craft (example, example). I read this book years before checking out his fiction.
And it didn’t just teach me about writing. It didn’t just teach me about how Mormons represent themselves. And, contrary to what you may have heard, it doesn’t just talk about gay people either. This book taught me about something I’d thought I was already expert in. It taught me to be a better reader.
Specifically I’m thinking of his essay about reading the Book of Mormon which gave me permission to have a more personal relationship with that book of scripture. And not until Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon would I read anything that would encourage me to dig so deep into the book as a work of literature.
Thanks, Scott. That alone was worth the price of admission.
Fitzgerald, John Dennis
The Great Brain
I didn’t discover the Great Brain books until after I moved from a Mormon town to Clovis, California. The library there was awash in them. It was dizzying to read about where I’d come from. (Albeit Utah rather than Idaho.) (And about ninety years earlier.) I don’t know if I thought any wild thinks about the validity of literature about Mormons (Fitzgerald himself was not), but I do remember savoring his insider/outsider perspective and the novel’s historical viewpoint. It was my Little House on the Prairie, you might say. I read most of the series (probably all except the posthumous one drawn from his notes and published the year I went on my mission) the same time I was reading Doctor Doolittle and the Three Investigators. And these stories about a Mormon town were just as legitimate according to the library.
So thanks, Mr Fitzgerald, for showing how darn mainstream my people can be, while keeping us as peculiar as we’ve ever been.
My Name Is Asher Lev
Mormons liking Potok is an utter cliche. But like all cliches, it only became a cliche because it is built upon an important truth.
I was talking to a new member of my ward recently. He’s in his early twenties and a reader and he mentioned to me that some of his favorite literature is Jewish literature. I said that’s true of lots of Mormons and proposed it’s because we don’t trust our fellow Mormons to write about us and so we come at ourselves vicariously through the Jews. He found that pretty darn insightful. The next thing for me to do is get him some excellent Mormon books. Maybe Death of a Disco Dancer or The Backslider.
I know before I read My Name Is Asher Lev I had never taken Mormon lit seriously. I had read and found worthy Dean Hughes’s Children of the Promise series and Curtis Taylor’s The Invisible Saint (see below) and other books—and even had intentions to make some of my own. But Potok’s writing changed my thinking on the subject entirely. Perhaps because I saw in Asher’s struggles with his community something I thought Mormons should not have to deal with–and surely didn’t (?). Perhaps because I identified with Asher so fully as a young aspiring artist myself. Perhaps because it’s just so dangfiddly good. But reading Asher Lev the same time I discovered the AML changed my positioning to writing by/for/about Mormons profoundly and permanently.
Thank you, Mr Potok. I don’t know if that realignment would have happened without you.
The Invisible Saint
I used to borrow books from my grandmother. She introduced me to everyone from Dean Hughes to Pippi Longstocking, and coming home from Grandma’s with piles of books was a recurring highlight of my childhood. It’s likely her fault I have bookshelves overflowing with thousands of books in my own home today.
In high school, I asked to borrow The Invisible Saint. She said borrow nothing, I could have it. This was a first. And her reasons for giving it to me are complicated and a subject for another post. But it was mine and it is still mine. And I’m so glad.
First, the novel is funny. I read the prologue aloud in the car and was nearly killed as my father all but lost control of the car in his hilarity. It is today, and may always remain, my standard of pure comedy in fiction form. (Caveat: Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett may win the final recount as they’ve given more hiqual funny books to the world, but my point stands.)
Second, the book is heartfelt without being sentimental. It blends the real and the fantastic in a manner I’ve always aspired to. Tonally, I think you will find that my Byuck is its grandchild.
And ultimately I love it the same reason I love Scooby-Doo. The people in this story—regardless of anything else—are my friends. Friends I’ll always be happy to spend another half hour eating nachos and hanging out with.
Thank you, Curtis Taylor. Thank you for my friends. I really really love your book.