I recently did a quick read of John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet and posted notes here. Here is my one-sentence summary: “Turner gives a balanced if candid portrayal of Brigham, one that mainstream Mormons should be able to read without serious difficulties.” But not everyone agrees. Some very bright people think the book might very well cause problems for mainstream Mormons and should therefore perhaps be avoided. It’s a serious question: Can books cause problems? If so, what do we do with those problem books: Ignore them? Hide them in locked cases? Burn them?
Here are some reasonable arguments suggesting caution is warranted. In a review posted earlier at T&S, Julie said:
I have serious reservations about recommending it to the average church member; if you need your prophet to be larger than life, or even just better than the average bear, this book is not for you. I think there is a substantial risk that people raised on hagiographic, presentist images of prophets would have their testimonies rocked, if not shattered, by this book. Perhaps this is just an idiosyncratic reaction, but I felt an increased appreciation for Joseph Smith, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball after reading their biographies. I can’t say the same for Brigham Young; I liked him–and respected him–less. Much less.
Another LDS reviewer noted, “Upon finishing the book, I thought to myself, ‘why would anybody follow this Brigham Young? He’s kind of a jerk.’” He concludes his review:
In the end, then, I do not recommend the biography for believing Latter-day Saints. The Arrington biography, Brigham Young: American Moses, should suffice if you want the more historically accurate, yet still faithful, point of view.
Now one general rationale for recommending a book not be read is that it is a poorly written book: inaccurate facts, or good facts with poorly reasoned conclusions, or even good facts with good arguments on irrelevant or misleading questions or issues. But both reviewers (indeed, all reviewers I have read) think BYPP is a very well written biography. A second general rationale for dissuading others from reading a book is that the book, whether well or poorly written, is potentially harmful. Most parents would not buy their teenager a book titled The Joy of Hallucinogenic Drugs regardless of the reviews or quality of research. So is objective LDS history that kind of a topic, a harmful one that should be avoided by mainstream Mormons?
I’m sure you are familiar with some of the counterarguments. Books don’t kill testimonies, people kill testimonies. Knowledge is power. Inoculation: better to hear the bad news issues lurking in objective LDS history from friends (or at least neutral professionals) than from the president of the local Protestant anti-Mormon club or the latest New Atheist author, packaged to suit their respective agendas.
A more sophisticated reply is that the warning depicts reading primarily as a functional enterprise: read books that improve your life, avoid books that create problems. Taken to the limit, we’d all be reading mostly self-help and how-to books. Who knows, maybe we’d all be richer and thinner. But there are alternative theories of reading, one of which is that we read to broaden our horizons and increase our knowledge. New perspectives and new information sometimes creates problems, but generally these are just growing pains. While “ignorance is bliss” is often quoted, few people really believe it. Few people would actually opt to lose painful knowledge in favor of blissful ignorance. Ignorant bliss is, in any case, unstable: it evaporates when knowledge intrudes, invited or not. One might even argue that one of the primary purposes of reading is to cause ourself problems. That’s often how we read the scriptures: to jolt us out of our self-satisfied complacency (all is well in Zion) and direct us toward thinking and doing things that really matter.
Which is not to say there aren’t books that are better avoided than digested. There’s no particular reason the average Latter-day Saint should go looking for books that attack the Church or LDS beliefs. But almost invariably the agenda of those books undermines their quality. The primary reason they are better left unread is that they often misstate or distort the facts, or use arguments against Mormon beliefs or history that aren’t used against anyone else (so they aren’t really principled arguments, just variations on “we don’t like Mormons”). A book that criticizes LDS beliefs or practices using good facts and good arguments might very well be a beneficial book for Mormons to read. Maybe someone will write one someday.
BYPP is not the first book to pose this issue for LDS readers. Similar questions were kicked around about Rough Stone Rolling. Just last week, as I was sitting in the hallway at church reading BYPP, a friend spotted the cover and said he just bought a copy. He was in Utah visiting his old mission president and mentioned he was going to buy a copy of RSR. The mission president talked him out of reading RSR (some variation on “you don’t need that kind of stuff”), so instead he bought a copy of BYPP. I think he’d have been better off with RSR, but that’s not really the point. I think the point is that Mormons need to read more. Maybe we should start putting books back in the ward library.