Saturday, October 29, 2005

Rising Tide by John M. Barry

Wow. Every once in awhile, a book comes along that takes an obscure sort of a topic and just Forrest Gumps it (that is, shows how the entire world revolves around it). This is one of those books. Engineering, passion, engineering and passion, race relations, American aristocrats--this book has it all. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

Eh, you would have thought that the Krakatoa disaster would have taught me that Winchester can't be trusted. He takes a fascinating topic (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire) and hides it in a wandering narrative (plate tectonics, Pentecostalism, California's natural history, a cup of coffee he had in Ohio . . .).

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball by Edward Kimball

If you liked the recent President McKay biography, you are going to love the new biography of President Kimball.

President Kimball’s son Edward wrote a biography of his father in 1977, which turned out to be really bad timing since the most significant event of Kimball’s administration–and, arguably, of all of twentieth-century Church history–happened the very next year. That biography was (and still is) lauded as an unusually honest portrait of a Church President. (And you should read it before you read the new one.) I’m not sure why it took almost thirty years for the followup biography, but I can assure you that it was worth the wait.

Like the McKay book, this one fills some of the gaps in Church history. I’m too young to remember the ERA battle, the Hoffman affair, the Howard Hughes will, and the Church’s opposition to the MX missile. The author frequently uses before-and-after quotations from the General Handbook of Instruction in order to show how policies changed during his father’s administration. And, just as the McKay book did, there are lots of wonderful factoids here: Did you know that early converts in Africa were disproportionately male? That part of the responsibility of the committee that revised the hymn book in the 1970s was to use more gender-neutral language? That for a period ‘instructional solemn assemblies’ were held to train local priesthood leaders?

Edward Kimball writes that it was his father’s wish for his biography be “warts and all.” And it is. No flinching, no sanitizing. Here is a prophet who occasionally skips Church and becomes depressed over his physical limitations. We see a man who is overzealous in calling his inactive son to repentance and who later wished that he had been gentler in The Miracle of Forgiveness. We see the General Young Women’s President, Elaine Cannon, changing President Kimball’s mind about a major policy issue. We see the diminutive Kimball spending the night in the posh home of a stake president where he has to jump into the bed because it is so high off of the ground. And when he does, it breaks.

But we also see a Prophet of God:

On one occasion, while a Church security staff member was driving President Kimball home, Spencer leaned back to rest. After a bit, he suddenly sat bolt upright, took off his glasses, and looked intently at the driver. “Is this your first family?” he asked. Taken aback, the driver answered, “No, sir, I was married before. I tried all I could, but it did not work out.” President Kimball said, “I’m sorry if I have said something to cause you pain.” He lay back again briefly, then sat up again, looked intently, and asked, “How is your son?” The driver, who had only daughters by his second marriage, explained that he had not been allowed to see the son by his first marriage since the child was an infant, nearly twenty years earlier. They arrived at the Kimball home, and Spencer, embracing him, said, “You have good things to look forward to.” Puzzled, the driver asked [secretary] Arthur Haycock why the President would be reading his personnel file. Arthur assured him that the President had not seen the file. “How then,” the driver asked, “did he know about my family situation?” Arthur smiled, “That’s why he’s President of the Church.”

I don’t have a problem with ‘warts and all’ history, except that some authors forget about the ‘and all.’ Edward Kimball didn’t. This is a stellar, spiritual, honest, and amazing portrait of a prophet. But that’s not all.

Each book comes with a CD, which includes the full text of this biography, several other biographies of President and Sister Kimball, many scholarly articles, photographs, and audio clips. (It would have been nice if they had included the text of some of President Kimball’s more noteworthy talks but, alas, they didn’t.) The audio clips include some from before and others from after his throat surgery and his own description of the revelation on the priesthood–from a talk given in South Africa only a few months after the revelation was received. The CD also includes what is called the ‘working draft’ of this biography. A publisher’s preface in the book hints at why it may have been included:

The publisher and the biographer do not agree on the interpretations or weight of importance given to a number of events, or the choices of characterization of some of the people.

I read the working draft, which is color-coded to indicate what material is and isn’t in the final draft. (But I should note that I found at least a half-dozen errors in the color-coding system.) I would describe the omitted material as follows:

–About half of the omissions are fat that any good editor would have cut–interesting stuff, perhaps, that just wasn’t relevant to a biography of President Kimball and would have made a long book too long.
–Many omissions involve material that recounted differences of opinion between members of the Quorum of the Twelve and/or the First Presidency. The final book often includes the conflict without naming those who disagreed with President Kimball.
–Many omissions serve to make the final book less liberal than the working draft. Not only are some of Edward Kimball’s more liberal views removed, but some of President Kimball’s are as well. For example, the final book offers no sympathy to Sonia Johnson (a vocal supporter of the ERA who was excommunicated), but the working draft does by including her refutation of some of the charges against her. The draft portrays President Kimball as more sympathetic toward Johnson than the final book does. There are only two instances where the working draft is more conservative than the final book: President Kimball’s personal opinions about oral sex and birth control were omitted.
–Text on topics that might be embarrassing to the Church (failed policies, bad public relations, anti-Mormon efforts, “unannounced missions,” changes in temple work, compensation of GAs, discussion of pre-Adamites, Kimball’s suggestion that the priesthood ban may have been an error, etc.) were omitted from the final draft. Whether these omissions are due to discomfort over the subject or the assessment that they weren’t particularly relevant to a biography of the Church President is difficult to determine.
–Other omissions create a less-flawed portrait of the President; let’s just say that after reading the draft, one wonders if some of J. Golden Kimball’s proclivities were genetic.

But, overall, the omissions do not profoundly change the book, with one exception: the draft suggests that President Kimball had already reached a conclusion (based on inspiration) about extending the priesthood to all men before the famous revelation, which functioned more to ensure that recalcitrant members of the Quorum of the Twelve would fully support the change.

What didn’t I like? Not much. Many of the photographs don’t have captions and that’s annoying. While I can appreciate the desire to put most footnotes on the CD to save space in the book, it is somewhat disconcerting not to have a citation at hand. The footnotes that are included are often interesting factoids, if not completely germane to the topic at hand. But these are minor quibbles.

I am surprised that Deseret Book published this; it covers a lot of ground that one doesn’t normally find in a Deseret Book: this includes doctrinal matters (Adam-God theory, blood atonement) as well as historical incidents (the prophet asking an apostle to change a talk before publishing it, a First Presidency statement meant to clarify that a statement made by the prophet was a personal opinion). I’m going to be optimistic and hope that this book is the first of a long line of candid and compelling works from Deseret. I believe the Saints will be the better for it; my overarching impression of President Kimball after reading this book is that he was an incredibly humble, human, and powerful prophet. As his wife described him, this book represents him: “It is too much to say that he is perfect, but he comes wondrously close.”

Cross-posted to Times and Seasons.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman

Rough Stone Rolling is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. Bushman does an able, if not artful, job of telling the prophet’s story. His reading of Joseph’s use of seer stones, of his troubled relationship with his financially unsuccessful father, of the Book of Mormon’s countercultural take on Native Americans, and the changing place of women and blacks in unfolding LDS theology are gems. But Joseph Smith, in this book, is not a majestic, triumphant, haloed, barely-mortal dispensation head. He is, by Bushman’s portrait, a flawed man—one making many mistakes and subject to many weaknesses. His straightforward style might be a little jarring to those used to sanitized Church history, but this book is and will be the benchmark biography of the founding prophet for a long time.

More on this book forthcoming at Times and Seasons.

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