One of the distinctive features of the Book of Mormon is its pervasive anxiety about literacy, not only in the narrow sense of the ability to read, but in the wider sense of the role of reading and writing throughout a culture. Nephi opens the first chapter of the first book by informing us that he can read and write, and he describes at length the mechanical details of his writing. One of the first things the Book of Mormon accomplishes in its first three books, however, is to confront and deconstruct the foundational logic of literacy.
One of the earliest and central episodes of 1 Nephi is the return to Jerusalem to retrieve the Brass Plates, which were not just any sacred text, but the complete and unchanging Word of God etched in metal, just as it had once been carved in stone. For Nephi, the Brass Plates do not just contain information; they embody the whole project of storing all conceivable information for later retrieval. To these records he attributes the ability to contain all history, the entirety of religion, knowledge of his past ancestry and future posterity, a guarantee of language and culture, and the origin and ultimate fate of the world. All of this, he presumes, can be encoded as text, preserved indefinitely, and retrieved at will by reading the Brass Plates. For all of Nephiâ€™s contempt of legalistic fixation on the Law, Nephi himself has been trained to read in the same tradition. He can flee Jerusalem, but he can’t escape the assumptions about texts and literacy in his own mind. He even has to return to Jerusalem and retrieve the Brass Plates in order to bring a portable monument of literalism on his journey into the wilderness.
And yet what Nephi discovers is that following the logic of literacy to its ultimate conclusion undermines the very logic on which literacy is founded. Nephi needs the Brass Plates so that his descendants will have the commandmentsâ€”and the only way Nephi can get the plates is by the cold-blooded murder of a senseless and prostate Laban, a gross violation of one of the most fundamental commandments. Jerusalem, Nephi has warned, is about to fallâ€”and it will fall, at least in part, because Nephi himself has killed one of its military leaders and sown doubt among the leading households about the reliability of their servants. In the name of preserving a textual guide to ethical behavior, Nephi is forced to violate the ethical strictures of the Brass Plates. The slaying of Laban is also an assault on the literalist assumption that scriptural texts contain all the answers to every question; Nephi is justified in his act not by scriptural reasoning from within the text, but by direct and verbal divine command.
Even once Nephi has the Brass Plates, his attempt to read them literally eventually undoes itself when he is confronted with the figurative prophetic language of Isaiah. Nephi’s literate habit is to find his family’s story and his nation’s progress in the text of the Brass Plates, but Isaiah resists this simple decoding. The book of 2 Nephi, which renders the monumentality of the Brass Plates with the authorized and canonical language of the KJV, interrupts Nephi’s reading of Isaiah by introducing as narrator Jacob, an oral preacher who had been born in the wilderness far from the literate institutions of Jerusalem. Nephi recites and records; Jacob innovates and preaches. Literacy is not complete in itself, as literalism would have it, but rather begets orality. What’s striking about 2 Nephi is that Nephi’s reading of Isaiah generates the rest of Nephite history, their rise and downfall, the visit of their Savior, and their ultimate destruction: the essence of the rest of the Book of Mormon is contained within a few chapters of 2 Nephi. Nephi wants to discover the story of his people in the Brass Plates, but what he finds instead is that his reading creates a new story, with a new chosen people awaiting the presence of God in a new promised land. Literalism tells Nephi to look into a text for answers, but what Jacob recognizes, and what puts Jacob in charge of the plates and the recording of Nephi history, is that his prophetic commission is to start telling new stories.
After Nephi had picked up Laban’s sword, he never put it down again. Laban’s sword became the model for other swords by which Nephi armed his people to wage the wars that would eventually consume them. It is therefore fitting that Laban’s sword was buried together with the Golden Plates, the last textual artifact of Nephi and his people, as a warning about the potential costs and consequences of literacy. The Golden Plates were buried with another artifact of Nephite literacy as well, however: the Liahona, which was not a remnant of the reading practices taught in Jerusalem, but rather something discovered in the wilderness. Unlike the Brass Plates, it operated not as a medium for textual storage and retrieval, nor as a passive receiver of textual messages; its operation depended instead on the active participation of the reader’s faith. The only remnant of Nephite literate culture available to us is Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, which we usually think of as something like an enhanced version of the Brass Plates, as a text containing the entirety of what is worth knowing. But I wonder if perhaps we should think of it instead as something more like the Liahona, as a device that provides answers and even direct instruction, but only to the extent that we are actively engaged in the process.