History of a book

So I wrote a book. Not a Mormon book, but one in my academic field. I’ve been working on the book since just before my youngest daughter was born. She started first grade in September, and the book was published last week. The idea for the book came to me in 2005, while I was in a visiting position at the College of Charleston, about a year after I had finished my Ph.D., and not long after I started reading and commenting at Times and Seasons, which was the catalyst for several realizations that led, in one way or another, to the idea for the book.

When I started reading Times and Seasons in 2004, some of the posts I enjoyed the most addressed the intellectual aspects of Mormonism and the cultural issues of Mormon grad students and academics. These posts were the trigger for my first realization: I was a Mormon…and a scholar…which made me – ack! – a Mormon scholar. Not a bad thing to be, but not anything I had ever planned on.

Sometime that fall, while I was in the middle of a crosswalk on Calhoun Street in Charleston on the way to teach class, it occurred to me for the first time that my career was not an accident. A year earlier, I would have claimed that it was all due to a bug in some high school scheduling software in 1982. A glitch put my older brother into a class he hadn’t wanted (he had tried to sign up for French), but scheduling complications kept him from switching classes, and I continued in his footsteps. A foreign mission followed, and then a bachelor’s degree, then grad school and a Ph.D., all because (I would have told you with a straight face) I didn’t know when to stop. I had thought I would figure out my career plans during my mission or in college, but I never did (I told myself), so I ended up with a Ph.D. in the humanities instead. It’s not a very convincing story, I admit, but I believed it for nearly a decade.

That day in Charleston, it finally occurred to me that most missionaries do not check out Stefan Sonderegger’s Grundzüge deutscher Sprachgeschichte for language study, or Einar Haugen’s Die skandinavischen Sprachen, or Thomas Mann’s Sämtliche Erzählungen. I am a bit slow on the uptake. Only then did I understand that the choices I had made as a missionary, in response to my deepest interests and the environment that my mission put me in, had put me on a path that had brought me to where I was at that moment.

I went back and checked my journal. Here’s what I wrote on day ten in the MTC: “I want to be a professor.” On the last day of my mission, my mission president advised me to get a Ph.D. in something. Then I boarded a plane in Düsseldorf and flew home, still believing that I had failed to figure out my career plans, and that I had never received any guidance about them during my a mission.

The third thing that I recognized in 2004 and early 2005, as another round of job applications was meeting with no more success than earlier ones, was this: I was not in some transitional phase while I waited for my career to start. This – the heavy teaching load for a modest salary in a position that came with an expiration date – this was my career, and I had better make the most of it while it lasted. If I only had nine or six or three more months as a full-time academic, I was going to start off at the top of my list of professional goals and work down as far as I could before the clock ran out.

These were the thoughts at the back of my mind in early 2005 when a professor I had come to know while doing doctoral research abroad wrote to me and encouraged me to apply for a postdoctoral research fellowship. All I had to do was come up with a topic that would convince the fellowship selection committee.

I decided I couldn’t flee from who I was, and recognized instead that I was being offered the rare opportunity to work on a book that only I could write. I had written a dissertation on a fifteenth-century printed book, so early printing became one element of the proposal. I had earlier written a master’s thesis about Hildegard of Bingen, and I was still interested in what kind of communicative expectations and demands were raised by listening to a prophet’s voice – which was, not coincidentally, something I did semi-annually. And so the idea of looking into prophetic texts in the context of early print was born. When I first started working on the proposal, I had no idea if there would be anything to write about. I had no idea yet that the earliest vernacular printed book was the Sibyl’s Prophecy, or that there were over a thousand relevant editions from the first century of printing.

Nate Oman once wrote, somewhere on this blog or in an e-mail, that the maturing of Mormonism as an intellectual tradition would involve using Mormonism to critique other fields on inquiry, rather than making it only the object of inquiry. I did not write that kind of a book. It’s just another academic monograph with no relevance for Mormon studies. Even the book’s working definition of prophecy is very general rather than specifically Mormon. There are no hidden messages for Mormons in the audience. It’s simply a book written by a Mormon thinking Mormon thoughts and inspired by the events in a Mormon life, a book that was made possible in no small part by a not inconsiderable number of kind and helpful Mormons. Thank you.

16 comments for “History of a book

  1. Could the argument be made that by reviewing this history, you are nevertheless showing that the ASPIRATION to prophesy is a recurring theme in Christendom, and therefore that Joseph Smith is not quite the outlier fromChristianity that his opponents want him to be? I think a similar argument can be made about the concept of a pre-mortal life for mankind, whose permutations were reviewed by Givens in his book. Both have the potential to renormalize opinion on the context of Mormonism.

    In any case, congratulations on figuring out what you want to be when you grow up. If I had not been threatened with the draft, I would not have joined ROTC, become an officer, and been offered to be sent to law school at Air Force expense, a career completely divergent from the math teaching I thought I would do.

  2. I enjoy following other people’s stories like this. Thanks for sharing, and congrats on the book.

  3. Okay, this has gone on my wish list, after reading the few pages of the introduction available at Amazon’s “look inside” feature. I know nothing of the early history of printing, but think I know something about prophecy, and the lucidity of your introduction makes me think I could understand something scholarly in an entirely unfamiliar field.

    I need to adopt your view of: “If I only had nine or six or three more months as a full-time academic, I was going to start off at the top of my list of professional goals and work down as far as I could before the clock ran out.” My own opportunity to revel in Mormon history is coming to an end, but maybe instead of moaning about the injustice of it all I could take advantage of the remaining opportunity actually to accomplish something.

    We’ve missed you around here, Jonathan.

  4. Thanks for the kind comments. To forestall any disappointment, I should make clear (as I do in the introduction of the book) that I’m dealing with printed prophetic texts, rather than with the writings of flesh-and-blood, 15/16th-century prophets. There’s a lot more of the former than the latter, but the few examples of the latter I’ve seen are extremely interesting and could be the basis of a really fun research project for someone. Also, this book was pretty much intended as a merciless academic monograph for a specialist audience, because I couldn’t be sure I’d get a chance to write another (and so I composed the dedication in Gothic: If I only got one chance to write a dedication in Gothic, I wanted to make sure I took advantage of it).

    The next book project should be much more reader-friendly. It’s got beheadings, sedition, betrayal, a cannibalistic perversion of the sacrament, and some truly gripping recension criticism.

  5. Really enjoyed the narrative glimpse, Jonathan. Hildegaard’s an extremely fascinating figure, I’d love to see you do a post (or series) on her. And both this and your next book sound great.

  6. S., thanks, that’s the best thing an author can hear.

    Steve, this book is focused on the Holy Roman Empire during the first century of printing for several reasons, including practical ones. It’s one of the centers of European printing, and still has the best bibliographic tools for printed books. There are some works and some events that become known in several places in Europe, but less frequently than I had expected. There’s only a little diffusion of the works I’m looking at to England, and nearly none in the other direction, for example. More importantly, the texts that did cross borders had a much different significance in other regions, and pan-European events (1524 flood panic, for example) worked out very differently in other places.

    I was most interested in popular texts, so I focused on things that were frequently reprinted. The primary texts I deal with are the “Sibyl’s Prophecy,” which gets its own chapter, and then, spread over three chapters, Johannes Lichtenberger’s “Prognosticatio,” Josef Grünpeck’s “Speculum,” Johann Carion’s various works, pseudo-Methodius, and Birgitta of Sweden. I touch on a lot of other things, including some of Paracelsus, Johannes Virdung, and the Vaticinium summorum pontificorum. Then there’s a couple chapters just on astrological booklets, where Virdung and Wenzel Faber are the most prominent names.

    As for Joachim, a lot of what I’m dealing with is third- or fourth-hand Joachimism, so he’s both everywhere and nowhere. He rarely shows up as an author, but he’s often cited as an authority, and his influence is all over the place.

  7. “The next book project should be much more reader-friendly. It’s got beheadings, sedition, betrayal, a cannibalistic perversion of the sacrament, and some truly gripping recension criticism.”

    Sounds like it will be perfectly placed for the scholarly book market. Last year we had The Gesualdo Hex, a “vivid tale of adultery and intrigue, witchcraft and murder”, as well as Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy

  8. Well, you know, Bill, textbook adoptions drive sales, and sales keep the editor happy. I realize that the recension criticism might seem like selling out to the least common denominator, but the resulting stemma will have this one flying off the shelves, I’m sure.

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