By Tom Nysetvold
Great thinkers such as C. S. Lewis and Charles Eliot (Harvard President of The Harvard Classics fame) have held that reading “great books” – that is, old books that have stood the test of time – has inherent value that can’t be replicated with a diet of contemporary books. I believe this is eminently true within Mormonism, and that we who aspire to be educated members of the Church may have room for improvement in this area. The Mormon Texts Project is working to make such LDS great books more available.
C. S. Lewis said that:
“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator…It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”
This rings true with respect to Mormon literature. Obviously modern scholarship has its place – at a minimum, someone today has to write tomorrow’s old books. But we shouldn’t hesitate to read the original words of our “great men,” in their original context. Reading too many old books seems to be a rare error; C. S. Lewis recommends we err that direction:
“…if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it…The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
Old books give perspective. When we read a great man’s own words about doctrine (especially doctrine that was revealed in his time and to his contemporaries!), a biography written by a contemporary, or a history written based on interviews and living memory, we get a perspective that can’t be achieved any other way – the old source believes while the modern analyzes; the old feels while the modern describes; the old writer gives us his own thoughts while the modern attempts to capture an experience that is not his own. Old books are also an anchor; the best old books maintain their value regardless of the controversy of the day, while many modern books fall quickly from interest. There’s also value to catching the Pioneer spirit and seeing firsthand the constant divine mission and doctrine of the Church.
Furthermore, there’s value to hearing original, in-context Gospel preaching, even on same topics, from a variety of sources throughout Church history – to paraphrase Hyrum Smith, “[Read] the first principles of the Gospel – [read] them over again: you will find that day after day new ideas and additional light concerning them will be revealed to you. You can enlarge upon them so as to comprehend them clearly.”
Lest anyone think this is an ax that only C. S. Lewis and I grind, consider the following from Dr. Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University 1869-1909: “a five-foot shelf would hold books enough to give in the course of years a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.” He selected one such a shelf, The Harvard Classics. Similarly, Dr. Mortimer Adler of Great Books of the Western World fame said, “Reading the Great Books had done more for my mind than all the rest of the academic pursuits… it is the best education for the faculty as well as for the students; the use of original texts is an antidote for survey courses and fifth-rate textbooks; and it constitutes by itself, if properly conducted, the backbone of a liberal education.”
So, assume these gentlemen are right: reading classic books (predominantly old, just as history is) is then a uniquely effective way to educate ourselves, and it’s worth our while to read an old book for every new book we read. Where do we get such books, and how should we select them?
In the Church, these questions carry some difficulties. We are not (yet) a large publishing market, so our old books are not necessarily easily available, and so far as I can tell we have not (yet) developed a generally agreed-upon great works list. (Lists are out there, but they don’t agree and too frequently are shallow or focused on modern works, and I couldn’t personally claim to produce an authoritative list.) However, we possess a few great advantages. First, the literary output of fully half of Church history (everything up to 1923) is now in the public domain. Second, we know who our great men are, and they turn out in great measure to be our great authors. We can derive the bulk of a great works list just from that and fill in any gaps by seeing what the great men recommended, referenced, or published.
The Mormon Texts Project is leveraging these advantages to make books more freely available. Our vision is that the great works of the first half of Mormon history should be available for free, in common ebook formats. The books should have effective legal defense against unfounded copyright claims by modern re-publishers, and they should be widely backed-up and widely distributed, hence our decision to make the books available through Project Gutenberg. This year alone, we’ve made The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Talmage’s The House of the Lord, and eight other works freely and conveniently available on Project Gutenberg for the first time, bringing the total number of available works to thirty. Our to-do and in-progress lists include works by B. H. Roberts including Mormon Doctrine of Deity, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow by Eliza R. Snow, and many more; we expect to maintain a long-term output of at least twelve new works per year.
On our website (MormonTextsProject.
org), we maintain a list of all of the Church books currently available via Project Gutenberg.Not all of these are necessarily “great books” nor are all great books represented, but most of what’s freely available is there, accompanied by a growing library of related reviews and commentary. Though we don’t have an authoritative list of Mormon great works, and don’t have an ambition to produce an authoritative list, we are interested in others’ views on the books that should be prioritized, and we expect that the resources we provide will help interested members and others find and read enriching material. Our work is made possible by volunteers (we’re always recruiting, and no expertise is required) and publicized through our website and social media profiles (which can always use more support).
I expect that Mormon great works will continue to increase in influence as the Church continues to grow. Ultimately, although it may not be until the Millennium, they will take their deserved leading place in the global literary canon. Reading them brings unique perspective, understanding, and spiritual benefits. We hope the LDS community will take advantage of the great works we make available.
Tom Nysetvold, the Director of the Mormon Texts Project, is a Texan mechanical engineer involved in the refining industry who likes to hike and read old books in his spare time. He served in the Brazil So Paulo South Mission, speaks increasingly rusty Portuguese, and is studying Italian. He’s married to the beautiful and supportive Elissa Nysetvold.