Out of the Best Books: Introducing the Mormon Review

Out of the Best Books
Introducing the Mormon Review

by Richard Lyman Bushman

Inscribed in steel letters in the stairwell of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU is the scripture that begins: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom [D&C 88:118].” The passage may have been Joseph Smith’s favorite. He quoted it twice in the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer, and made the study of the best books the chief work of the Kirtland School of the Prophets. Since his time, all who appreciate the wide compass of Joseph Smith’s search for truth have cited it.

We launch the Mormon Review, an online journal of cultural criticism, in the spirit of seeking wisdom out of the best books. We ask: How do we seek wisdom out of books today? Where do we find the virtuous and praiseworthy? What are we called to criticize? The Mormon Review offers a public forum where Mormons can teach one another by exercising their critical powers on significant works.

The task, as we conceive it, is to pursue the meaning for Mormons of the millions of items that constitute our larger cultural world. What are we to make of the books, movies, art, music, politics, and exhibitions swirling about in our environment? Contributors are invited to examine films, plays, art of any kind, TV shows, children’s books, philosophical treatises, novels, histories, documentaries, scriptures from other traditions, political speeches, poetry, popular songs, video games, entertainment sites like Disneyland—any cultural artifact that awakens their Mormon sensibilities. The only restriction is that these items must not be by Mormons or about Mormons. We believe the spirit of the best books scripture is to search outside of Mormonism for wisdom.

We do not envision a single approach to Mormon cultural criticism. We expect each response to be individual and idiosyncratic. In our view, Mormon criticism is the sum of many variegated parts. When accumulated and deposited, however, the Mormon Review essays will constitute, we believe, a historic archive of twenty-first-century Mormons grappling with the world.

Essays of any length (optimally four or five pages) should be submitted using the instructions at the Review’s website: www.mormonreview.org. Reviews will be accepted beginning August 1 for the launch of the journal on September 1, 2009. The editorial board will judge essays on their relevance to Mormon culture, clarity of expression, and general interest.

15 comments for “Out of the Best Books: Introducing the Mormon Review

  1. I have been looking forward to a site like this ever since Professor Bushman alluded to the idea at the SMPT conference. I’m glad that it’s finally going to be a reality.

  2. Thank you! I’m very much looking forward to this.
    Idiosyncratic comments from Mormon essayists?
    I hope that this Review’s offerings will help to dispel the notion that there’s no room for independent thinking in our hive — although the membership in good standing of Harry Reid, Glen Beck, Ezra Taft Benson, and N. Eldon Tanner should have accomplished that.
    I look forward to the uniquely-Mormon cultural criticism coming in this Review. Maybe it will become a useful resource to which I can point folks whom I engage in extra-Mormon blogs.

  3. Excellent! I think it is wonderful that we LDS are finally stepping out of our chapels and into the real world again. We miss out on so much great stuff, because we think that John Bytheway is the final word on youth guidance….

  4. As a longtime proponent of developing Mormon-oriented critical frameworks, I’m highly interested in this project. But I doubt that 4-5 pages of cultural criticism is going to reach the John Bytheway crowd. Of course, it’d be awesome if I was wrong about that. And perhaps if The Mormon Review takes off and develops a solid base of contributors, it could launch a more populist version as a side project.

  5. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the mormonness of the analysis is enforced. As I recall, the AML list has had many entries that were virtually off-topic due to a strained correlation with a Mormon perspective. I imagine the Review will be full of Mormonness at first, but it could easily slip into essays of “my opinion on X with a token scripture quote/Mormonish slant thrown in to keep it on topic.”

  6. Wm Morris (#2), I am not sure it is settled whether there will be comments on the site, but I’m sure there will be lively discussions of (some or all of) the reviews somewhere! I’ll get back to you when I know more.

    Eric Russell (#8), why so pessimistic? Were these AML list entries selected by peer review? Of course, a lot depends on what one takes the boundaries of Mormonism to be. My assumption is that Mormonism is potentially an entire worldview, knit together by and growing out of Restoration principles. If we judge Mormonness merely by what is in some of the Sunday School manuals, we might run out of material or get boring rather quickly, but I don’t think that will be the Mormon Review’s approach. Of course, a more expansive notion of Mormonness means it will often be contestable whether a given piece is really Mormon or not. All the better, I say. Which is more Mormon, a communal or libertarian approach to the economy? Questions like this will probably arise; part of the interest of the Mormon Review is to explore and give more substance to what a distinctively Mormon perspective could and should be.

  7. I am excited about this new project, but cautiously so. There are already Mormons reviewing (popular) cultural works in other fora (DN and Meridian), but I do not think there is anything distinctively Mormon about the way they review, just generic prudishness. The Mormon Review will hopefully feature a little more thoughtfulness and nuance, and may even help us nail down what distinctively Mormon principle and values are relevant and valuable to cultural production.

  8. Thanks for the reply, Ben. I think the best way to foster contributors (both in developing new ones and keeping the interest of the-already-contributed) is to develop a base of fans who comment. But I certainly understand that there are reasons to not open up articles for comment.

  9. I would like to add my congratulations for this effort, it looks like a great idea that could bring some very important works to the notice of members of the Church. I do agree with Wm Morris in #11 above that the ability to comment and “discuss” an article could be a very important part of developing a viable site. It could be that you will want to formally have that commenting take place in Times and Seasons but posting a comment section for article.

  10. It would be particularly exciting if some international reviewers would contribute. It would help make the point that there are many Mormonesses in the church.

  11. BC Bill (#12), a couple of versions of the idea of hosting discussion of articles at T&S are on the table. In my opinion, we don’t want contributors to MR to feel obligated to participate in discussion of their articles. Some authors may not feel they can commit to spending the time to do that. However, there will certainly be plenty to discuss!

    Dale (#13), I completely agree. International submissions (in author, theme, or both), will be very welcome.

  12. I’m looking forward to it mainly that I might find some really good books to read by authors that are new to me. I’m writing up one review now and plan to submit it, if I can get it in better shape. Finding new good authors is always hard.

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