On Not Reading the Book of Mormon

Having heard nice things about the odd little book by Pierre Bayard How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (ht: someone out there), I finally found it. And read it. Summary: You read a very, very small slice of all published books. You forget most of what you read, so you retain only a small part of the few books you actually read. Worse yet, you bend and twist what you do remember to fit your own personal matrix of ideas and experiences. So what is in your head after reading a book, even more so for a book you read years ago, likely bears little or no similarity to the actual text of the book. Maybe we should forget books, forget any claim to link to some text that we supposedly read and remember, and just talk creatively and imaginatively about our own ideas and experiences.

The author draws a lot out of that simple set of claims. He throws in some fancy terms (he is, after all, a professor of literature): the inner book is the personal matrix of ideas you use to deform what you remember of books you deign to actually read; the screen book is the collection of deformed scraps and snippets in your memory for any given book, which obviously varies dramatically across individuals and might have little to do with the actual book you read; and the phantom book is “that mobile and ungraspable object that we call into being, in writing or in speech, when we talk about a book” (all from a footnote at page 160). So your life and conversation is filled with phantom books.


Now if there is one type of book likely to escape this problem, it should be the scriptures: we read and re-read scripture, we preach and listen, they come in numbered chapters and verses to aid memory and reference, we are told our salvation may depend on what is in them. If Bayard’s critique applies to scripture, it applies across the board. Ask a Sunday School teacher to describe the relation of class members to the text for the week, and you will likely hear a set of observations that parallels Bayard’s analysis: they didn’t read the assigned book. If they did, they forgot it. And if someone did actually remember something of what they read, they often remembered it wrong, sometimes fantastically wrong. So I think the whole Bayard Critique applies to how we read and remember scripture. This is bad news.


Any silver lining to this playbook? I invite your ideas in the comments, and feel free to comment on Bayard’s book even if you haven’t read it. Because it really doesn’t matter whether you have read it or not, you can talk about it. So here are some redeeming points about scripture reading.

  • If you haven’t read the Book of Mormon … you might know as much about it as the next guy. At least you don’t have any deformed textual snippets stored in your memory.
  • Maybe memorization of verses or passages is worth the effort. It gets around the deformation problem and puts a block of objective text from that elusive actual book into your memory. Remember the people at the end of Farenheit 451 (haven’t read it; saw the movie) who memorized entire books?
  • God is apparently aware of the problem and has identified remedial action. “Recite them (words of scripture, at least the words of Deuteronomy) to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:7-9)

That last little bit reminds me of a passage from a book I read. Seems like good advice in light of the Bayard Critique.

Get close to the scriptures. Do anything you can. … Underline everything. Pack your margins with notes. Read Paul out loud like poetry. … Squeeze their verses like oranges. Know Isaiah by heart. Love Matthew like a brother.

8 comments for “On Not Reading the Book of Mormon

  1. I love the final quote. That’s an ideal I am going to throw myself into. I’ve read deeply for years, but “read out loud like poetry” or ” Squeeze their verses like oranges.” that’s a twist of hopeful joy ahead. Thanks.

  2. Reminds me of Daymon Smith’s discussion about text and metatext in the excellent “Cultural History of the Book of Mormon” series of books.

  3. I think this tells us a ton about the origins of scripture, particularly the bible. Scraps of stories partially remembered, now written down and frozen in time.

  4. I find that General Conference talks tend to be mis-remembered more than scriptures. It takes 5 months before a good quote from a 70 to get attributed to an apostle in Sunday School, and 7 to get attributed to the President of the Church.

  5. It’s probably good to not read the scriptures because the church has moved away from a substantial portion of them.

  6. The Book of Mormon is one of those books widely regarded as something you can dispostively criticize without having read it.

    Indeed, there is very little evidence that I have seen that people who are not Mormons, who write about the Mormons and the Book of Mormon, have really read any substantial part of the text, let alone the whole thing. Professor Stephen Webb, who has taught classes in theology and comparative religion studies for years, had regularly taught all sorts of stuff about the Book of Mormon, wihtout having actually read it himself in any significant way. He describes in his book Mormon Christianity how surprised he was when he finally actually read the Book of Mormon in an effort to understand what it said to its devoted readers. He confesses he was astonished at how “obsessed” the book is with Jesus Christ and his role as the Son of God, Creator, Jehovah, and Savior.

    The fact that most critics of the Book of Mormon appear to have not noticed this very obvious fact reveals that they put little effort into actually reading and understanding the book.

  7. Thank you for sharing this meditation. I read Bayard’s book some years ago and found that its thesis has stayed with me. This application to scripture — closing with an excerpt from my favorite chapter of Letters to a Young Mormon — is thoughtful and helpful.

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