Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Review: THE LOST BOOK OF MORMON, by Avi Steinberg
This is a book that's just a pleasure to read. Avi Steinberg's first memoir, Running the Books, came out in 2011 and was also a pleasure to read, albeit one that tackled a very different subject- prison libraries (and I recommend that book if you liked Orange is the New Black, just by the way.). The Lost Book of Mormon is part travelogue, part meditation on the nature of writing, part history. Steinberg starts in Jerusalem, where he has lived on and off for most of his life, examining the sites in that city that are connected to the Mormon faith. He really starts by trying to locate an actual copy of the Mormon holy book in Jerusalem, and that story alone is worth reading as a comic portrayal of life in the holy city.
But things really get going when Steinberg embarks on an organized tour of Mormon holy sites in the new world- Mayan sites in Central and South America to be precise. He hitches his wagon to a group of Australian and American Mormons, a big extended family traveling together, and Steinberg virtually the sole outsider, non-relative and non-Mormon. This section of the book is funny, fascinating and very enjoyable, kind of like A Walk in the Woods only on a bus and with a group.
He keeps this outsider's perspective throughout the book, thinking about Joseph Smith, the uses of storytelling and fiction, and the religion as an idiosyncratic product of American culture. He doesn't support the Mormon faith per se but doesn't criticize it either, rather he uses the phenomenon of Mormonism as a jumping-off point for meditations on literature and religious scripture as a literary creation. This is not a book about the Book of Mormon so much as it is about Steinberg's encounter with the faith, and especially so when he gets to his participation in a reenactment of episodes from the Book.
Along the way he talks about his own struggles and in particular his faltering marriage. Not everyone is going to be interested in his personal life and the mixed reviews on social media bear this out. Personally I enjoyed the whole thing cover to cover. I think I just like his voice and point of view. I would definitely recommend the book to memoir readers but warn readers expecting a conversion story or something very pro-Mormonism to stay away. Again it's not critical- it's just not about being an endorsement or serious analysis pro or con. It's a quiet, kind of meditative book, and well worth your time.
FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review from Random House.