Monday, September 4, 2023

My Odd Book Habit

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love books, and I prefer the printed kind to ebooks, although I do read books occasionally on my iPad. Lately, though, things have gotten a little out of control. A couple of months ago, I counted and was mildly surprised to learn that I was reading eight books at the same time. And that didn’t count the issue of Dialogue I was reading while I shaved in the mornings or the issue of the Journal of Mormon History I was reading during lunch at work. I was reading two books at work to give me a break from editing. One was Christopher Blythe’s fine volume Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse, which I finished last month. The other was a book by one of our BYU Studies authors, Greg Dundas. I’m still enjoying his Explaining Mormonism: A Believing Skeptic’s Guide to the Latter-day Saint Worldview. My only complaint about his book is the subtitle. Compared to the questions I have in my own head, he’s not really a skeptic, but what I would consider a true believer. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting book.

That means I was reading six books simultaneously at home. This requires a little unpacking. Two of the books are on my iPad, and I read them only Tuesday and Thursday mornings while I’m logging miles on the elliptical in the basement. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I get my exercise on the basketball court, with a group that is kind enough to still let me play at my age. These two early-morning ebooks are the Maxwell Institute’s Early Christians and the University of Utah Press publication Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity. The other four books I was reading mostly in the evening. I was slowly working my way through Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Houseful of Women, which I also finished last month.

The other three were books that, for various reasons, I couldn’t read more than a couple of pages in without putting them down. One is a book by Swedish-American physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. This book was recommended to me by a reader of my Dialogue essay on cosmology. It is a fascinating book, but it is about twelve stories over my head. I understand maybe a tenth of what I’m reading, so after wading through a couple of pages, my brain is on overload. The second is one I picked up after Stephen Cranney mentioned it in a blog post on Times and Seasons. It is titled Confessions of a Sociopath and is written by a Latter-day Saint law professor (pseudonym M. E. Thomas) who takes great joy in describing her amoral approach to life. Some curious readers have figured out what her real name is and have posted it online, but it’s not really relevant to what I’m writing about here. I’ll finish this book eventually, but after a couple of pages I get tired of the author’s narcissism and braggadocio. The earlier chapters about her childhood and how she navigates being an active member of the Church without any apparent conscience or moral center were more interesting than her later chapters about how she finds great satisfaction in using and destroying people. All that matters to her is her own superiority. It’s kind of like listening to Donald Trump for more than a minute. The final book is The Catcher in the Rye, which I also finished last month and which was certainly more attention-grabbing than either of the two books just mentioned. But still, reading the ramblings of a depressed, judgmental teenager who smokes a lot while wandering around New York City is not exactly like reading David Baldacci or John Grisham. A page-turner it ain’t.

Catcher, though, is part of my attempt to make up for a gap in my education when I was young. Somehow I made it through high school and six years of college without reading a lot of books considered classics. So, in the recent past I’ve read books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which, by the way, was a fascinating read) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (which was not). And here I must disappoint anyone who loves the whale book. As a three-time novelist and a thirty-year editor, reading Moby Dick was unexpectedly agonizing. I know it’s supposed to be great literature, but I have never read an author who tortures the English language or bores his readers quite like Melville. Yes, I now know more about sperm whales than anyone other than a whaler or a cetologist has any right to know, but for heaven’s sake, the white whale doesn’t even show up in the story until page 552. And the climax of this story is largely underwhelming. Sorry for disparaging what some people regard as the greatest book they have ever read, but for me it was pure misery. It took me years to finish it, and at the end, I can’t say I’m glad I read it.

I can’t say the same thing, however, for the book I started once I’d finished Catcher in the Rye. When I want to read an excellent writer, I pick up a Scott Turow novel. I’m slowly working my way through his legal sagas of the fictitious Kindle County and its fascinating inhabitants. Turow’s descriptions are superb, but it is how he delves into the souls and personalities of his characters that sets him apart from the aforementioned Grishams and Baldaccis of the literary world. His plots are intricate and his characters complex, and these two primary elements of literature weave together to create satisfying stories that reflect so much of real life that they very well could be. Because his characters are wonderfully flawed, his stories often include, shall we say, the darker aspects of mortality that Mormon fiction too often avoids. In other words, his stories are definitely R-rated. But then, so is life.

I have a list of books I intend to get to eventually, but for now I think I’d better keep my reading to a more manageable six simultaneous volumes. Maybe next spring when I retire, I’ll have more time to expand my smorgasbord of books. Or maybe I’ll even try writing another novel. We’ll see.

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