Thursday, July 20, 2006

My New Sidebar

I like to read. Actually, I love to read. This love has instilled in me a corresponding love for books and most things book related. For example, the first pieces of furniture that the wife and I bought after getting married were bookshelves. I can literally wander around a Barnes & Noble or a Borders for hours without losing interest. Get me into a Costco and it's trouble... I usually leave with three or four books I hadn't gone in intending to buy. This compulsion has lead to a rather sizeable book collection. The problem is that while in law school I can't read much of anything not school-related without feeling guilty for all the school-related things I should be reading (...unfortunately for me, surfing the internet isn't as guilt-ridden). This has naturally led to stacks of newly purchased books that sit gathering dust. For instance, this past year I thought it would be interesting to read books by both (Conservative) Justice Antonin Scalia and (Liberal) Justice Stephen Breyer and compare their jurisprudence (I know... I'm a geek). I haven't cracked the spine of either. Last fall, I also purchased, among other books, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. While I did flip through a couple of pages during the semester, I didn't start reading it until after finals. Over the Christmas break, I managed to burn through about 200 pages of the hefty, but fascinating biography... and then, once again, school hit. Despite my best efforts, over the next four months I failed to read more than 20-or-so pages. Every time I'd set aside time to sit down and plow through it, I'd have to read back a dozen pages to re-orient myself. Come summer, however, I got back on my game. I finished the Rough Stone by mid-June. My hope was to put a dent into my dust covered stacks this summer, but alas, I've gotten lazy and dug myself a pretty big hole. It's mid-July and I still haven't finished my next book. I'm beginning to doubt that I'll make much headway on those stacks. To motivate myself, I've added a book section to my blog sidebar. I figure this way I might possibly read a little faster in order to avoid the embarrassment of having the world know that I'm currently reading the teenage-girl-coming-of-age bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees. My wife is making me read it... I promise.

26 comments:

melbo said...

I myself am surprised you haven't finished more books -- seeing as how I always get stuck driving so you can "read." I'm such a great wife.

BA said...

Didn't you love that part when that girl lost her virginity, that book is soooo cute and good.

Marc said...

Hasn't lost her virginity yet... but I'll keep you posted.

Logan said...

Come on, admit it, Marc. Rough Stone Rolling is BORING. I've got the same idea about reading plenty of books this summer, but RSR has really bottle-necked that. I mean, I'm glad to learn all this stuff about Joseph Smith and all, but the book is just . . . so easy to put down.

BUT, I should finish it tonight, and I can get on with my reading for the summer.

Matt Astle said...

Since I'm the one you stole the sidebar HTML code from, I feel justified in saying that sometimes I stick in a thin, easy book between heftier ones just to keep up my sense of having accomplished something on the reading front (and to knock previously read books off the bottom of the "Recently Read" section of my blog). So I have no problem with you reading teenage fiction. Just so long as your list of authors is at least 10% Supreme Court justices.

Marc said...

Logan - Well I won't argue that it's definitely a slow read... (though I have enjoyed much of it). Since you seem to have liked it about as much as passing a kidney stone, I'm interested in knowing what book is waiting in your on deck circle.

Matt - Since I just lent it to you, hopefully you're having more luck with RSR than Logan. Glad to know that you pad your reading stats with a little fluff. Makes the rest of us feel a little better about not measuring up to the 100 books a year you somehow manage to read.

Logan said...

I didn't say I haven't enjoyed it, just that it's boring. The information and subject matter are very interesting, but Bushman's writing manages to take the enjoyment out of it. It's whatever the opposite of a page turner is, that's all.

Next for me will either be a book called Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain, or Origins of Power by Quinn.

Logan said...

You know what? Yeah, mark me down after all as a "thought it was okay, but didn't love it" RSR.

I'm very glad to have read it, but in addition to it being boring, I found Bushman's explanations of Joseph's theology and psychologal profile hit-and-miss, and I think he sweeps a lot of potential historical eyebrow-raisers under the rug.

Uh, that said, I'm totally glad you liked it!

Gargantus said...

What a bunch of book reading nerds. Go out and bang some chicks, there's no time to read!!!

Sue Ellen Mischke said...

Wait a minute.... Melbo is your wife? How did I not know this?

Gargantus said...

He wanted to keep it a secret in case he was ever in chicago on business... you know how it is.

Marc said...

Logan - I guess I'm not sure what exactly you were expecting from RSR. I didn't find Bushman's writing style as mindnumbing as it seems you did. Overall I'd have to say I really enjoyed the book. One of the things I liked most was his attempt to bridge the chasm between believing and secular histories. I typically appreciated Bushman's theological and psychological interpretations of Joseph. There are certainly still a lot of "historical eyebrow-raisers"... but I thought Bushman tried to walk a necessary fine line when addressing them. Other believing histories have simply ignored some of these events or issues while other secular or revisionist histories (like, say, Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History) have focused on them disproportionately. By maintaining something of a balance, I think Bushman's book helps present a clearer picture of a very complex man. Your new reads sound interesting... though Art and Physics doesn't seem like any more of a page turner. I've never read Origins of Power, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on it when you're done. I've toyed with the idea of reading it, but my time, as I've pointed out, has been pretty limited.

Marc said...

Sue - Really?!

Logan said...

Well, Marc, my problem is that after reading Bushman, you'd get the impression that there aren't really any problematic issues with Joseph Smith, and that any issues there are have easy, quick, answers. I guess I feel like he paints a rosy picture and gives believing readers an incomplete--and very sympathetic--picture that might not be accurate.

From the little I've read of Origins of Power it seems much, uh, juicier, to say the least. And Art and Physics is really blowing my mind. Shlain argues that the great, world-changing insights in science are reflected, and even anticipated, by revolutionary artists. It's pretty cool.

Rabble-rouser said...

I should do the same thing. However, I wouldn't be embarrassed about what book I had up there but how long the same book was up there. Unless I counted my text books, because that seems to be all that I read anymore.

Tara said...

Haven't you people heard of TV?

Marc said...

Logan - Perhaps Bushman's treatment struck me in a different way than it did you. I don't think he offered any quick, easy answers for polyandry, Joseph's lack of forthrightness with Emma about his polygamous activities, Joseph's problematic temper or any other difficult issues. I do think offers plausible ways to frame these issues, but I don't think that makes them easy or neat. For me, the book painted a picture of a complex individual who had plenty of faults, had made countless mistakes, but who led with prophetic vision. I think it's as accurate a picture as we are likely to get of the man. For some, this is too critical a picture (I've met plenty of people who didn't like the book for this reason), for others it is not critical enough. Much of this comes down to the philosphy behind how one retrieves history. I think that being more critical or drawing negative inferences everywhere possible is just as "quick and easy" as ignoring difficulties. No one approaches these issues in vaccum; it is simply impossible for us to extricate ourselves from our respective backgrounds and understandings. We are all products of our upbringing, culture and society. I believe this makes history not an effort to obtain some objective retrieval, that is unattainable. Instead it is an effort to recover the past in an honest way. I think this is what Bushman strives to do (however bland his style of writing may come off to you).

Origins of Power certainly seems as though it would be a juicy read. Though it's important to note that Quinn and the new Mormon history movement he was an advocate for face some formidible philosophical hurdles of their own.

Art and Physics sounds pretty fascinating... you'll have to email me your thoughts on it when you're finished. I'm intrigued.

Marc said...

Rabble - I'm prone to do the same thing (it took me 6 months to finish Rough Stone Rolling)... I'm hoping this side bar helps with that problem too.

Tara - Yeah... we're uber-geeks. But unfortunately, I watch too much TV too. Everything in excess seems to be my motto.

Mind Spewer said...

I loved the Secret Life of Bees. I just finished reading her latest book, The Mermaid Chair.

To catch up on your reading you should just go to Alaska where all there is to do (besides packing fish and wandering around in gloriously pristine Nature) is to grab a book and a rain-free spot and dive in.

BA said...

If I were in Alaska I'd just be looking for places to drill.

Gargantus said...

or eskimos... to drill.

d.e.bohn said...

Two issues have come up with regard to the Bushman book that deserve some attention. One is that the book doesn’t take on the tough issues and the other is that it is boring. Of course, this tells us much more about the art of historical narrative and the kinds of strategies employed by the authors who write about the man than Joseph Smith, himself. The fact is that no comprehensive history of Joseph Smith has been attempted in decades. No doubt the very unsatisfying Hill biography and the factional fighting over how to characterize Joseph have intimidated many from such an effort. A more formidable reason might be that a successful biography involves a veritable mountain of material over which few scholars exercise genuine control. However, a number of pieces dealing with specific aspects of Joseph’s life have been offered. Yet far too many of these involve either sectarian wrangling or outlandish interpretations based on either fashionable psychological or social theories or tempting new bits of information. These “new facts” create an opportunity for spicy new interpretations against the overwhelming preponderance of what we do know about Joseph. While such convoluted approaches may be “interesting,” appealing as they do to the sensational, they rarely produce viable and sustainable accounts. Yet, frequently, people point to them as raising the “real” or “tough issues” which actually evaporate when an attempt is made to fit them into a larger account of Joseph’s life. So I think it is here that the real issue lies, producing an honest and “complete” account of Joseph’s life without granting too much power to the changing fashions of theory or compromising its content by our desire for the salacious.

Marc said...

Mind - Damn... I have to go to Alaska?

BA - Good thing you're not in Eugene this summer or the hippies might roast you alive.

Garg - Interesting... never pegged you as having a thing for Inuits.

D.E.B. - Apparently I'm very much my father's son.

Logan said...

D. E. Bohn,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. (Although you spoke in the passive voice, "issues have come up," I think you were responding to me.) Especially since I was mostly just mouthing off.

First, I really did intend "boring" and "quick and easy answers" to be two separate points. I really found Bushman's writing style to be dry and unengaging. Perhaps that is best explained by the genre, but although I'm not extremely well read in historical narratives I do feel like I've read better. In any case, I was partly joking by raising this criticism.

About the "tough issues," you (and Marc) have a point that 'controversial' isn't necessarily the same as 'honest' or 'interesting.' And it's fine for the overall viewpoint to be a sympathetic one. But now that we're raising the level of discourse above light cocktail-party fare, let me clarify what I meant: There are some issues dealt with in the book that, had I not known there was any controversy surrounding them, I wouldn't have learned of it from the book. Two examples that come to mind are the first vision accounts and the Book of Abraham stuff. Since I did know of those controversies I was able to see how he was dealing with them, but I thought it was extremely low key. And since I'm only partially familiar with some of the controversies, it made me wonder which others Bushman dealt with so quietly that I didn't realize anything was being dealt with at all.

And although I didn't need the book to be sensationalistic or speculative, I would have liked to feel like I learned a little bit more about what issues there are in Joseph's life. Instead, I'm left suspecting there's more to the story, and wanting to read another account to fill in the picture.

Sheldon said...

Melbo and Marc,

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one that uses the "can you drove so that I can read" line...

debohn said...

Logan – my too long response 

For a couple of reasons, I had to smile when you suggested that “boring” might be inherent in the nature of academic history. First, in graduate school there was one 900 page tomb on diplomatic history so stale that no amount of Dr Pepper could focus my concentration on its content. Second, I hesitate to admit that at least one piece on history that I wrote turned out to be a sopophoric marvel. It was entitled “The Larger Issue” and I intended it to close the discussion on more than ten years of wrangling over “The New Mormon History” by summarizing the philosophical limits within which all historical narratives necessarily worked and then redirecting the discussion to the ethics that should guide historical research. The essay was so complex that I was told in a whisper by one reader that he found it the ultimate cure for insomnia. At least I am glad that it did serve one purpose.

I guess boredom involves both sides of the equation, the subject matter itself and how a given researcher puts the material together into a well crafted and written account. When the two come together, it is wonderful, otherwise we struggle. I celebrate Rousseau and Nietzsche’s ability to work through the most complex issues with clarity and literary excellence, yet Kant, Hegel and Heidegger are of extraordinary value even though they make us suffer unnecessarily.

That said, I do think that the very complexity of the task and the limited number of pages available to the author to tell Joseph’s story made it difficult for Bushman to maintain the same degree of stimulation as one might find in a monograph. This might also shed light on your second concern. If we assume the author’s goal was to give us a “general feel” for the man, one based on a relatively complete assessment of the issues that have interested scholars but also grounded on a belief in the authenticity of Joseph’s mission, Bushman would have found it difficult to give too much importance to any one aspect of the prophet’s life and work. Of course, it is also true that there is no objective standard of salience in these matters, so what is given prominence by one groups will fall into the background of another’s account.

While Bushman may have introduced us to issues of which we were unaware, such as those involving the papyri and different versions of the First Vision, we also know that these issues have been broadly discussed in the literature. Appetites whetted, we are free to further explore, and you will be surprised that some of the very best work is done by LDS scholars who have not hedged in working through the difficult questions. You might find as I have that it has been a long time since something genuinely new has been advanced, and as a consequence, the arguments seem to be continuously recycled, depending on changing fashions in historiography and popular (and in many cases uncritical) academic circles. Or Logan, you may do better than I have and develop some new and valid ways of framing these issues to spark our interest and rekindle the passion of the discussion.

d.e.bohn

Suffering jet lag in Boston