Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life

Somehow I skirted the edges of awareness of Hugh Nibley for a long time, though many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have read his articles and books, or at least knew something about him.

When I was in high school, my mom had a copy of Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless that she read and really enjoyed, and she encouraged me to read it. I only read a little of it, and I don't remember it making much of an impression on me. As a student at BYU I heard his name mentioned from time to time, and around 1994 a friend took a Pearl of Great Price class from him. This friend was not impressed. He felt Dr. Nibley rambled on about seemingly arbitrary topics, and made no sense to the students. (It may have been this very class that caused Hugh to quit teaching in disgust with the students, an event described in the biography!)

Shortly after that time, Erin and I noticed our friends Mike Haire and Theron & Valerie Harmon were reading a bit of Nibley. Mike had read Approaching Zion, while Theron & Valerie were reading individual Nibley article reprints from FARMS. In the late 1990s I finally read Approaching Zion and then Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, and they gave me a lot to think about and ultimately influenced my views significantly. They enhanced the way I viewed wealth (not inherently good or bad, but just a tool; however, a very dangerous one to the steward of that wealth), and gave me a much greater appreciation of Brigham Young and the complexities of our stewardship of the earth.

Still, I wasn't interested in Nibley's studies of ancient culture, religion, or documents. When I saw Nibley speak in 1999 or 2000 at the new Joseph Smith Building at BYU, it was a good experience for me to hear the man's voice and manner, but didn't draw me into his other writings.

Then this summer while staying at Jon & Amy Krause's house (my brother- and sister-in-law), I needed something to read and found Jon's copy of Since Cumorah in their guest bedroom we were staying in. I read the first 4 chapters and was completely engrossed, and bought a copy for myself. The further I read, the more silly I felt at not having read the book earlier. It is, after all, about 40 years old. Nibley had raised many useful questions and made interesting observations about the Book of Mormon text and its ancient setting, and his style was aggressive and cheeky, though forever tentative, and enjoyable to read.

All this is an introduction (and likely an exasperatingly long one to you, dear reader) to my background as reader of this biography of Hugh Nibley. I'll summarize my review first: It is an excellent biography. It's well researched, with an enjoyable pace, tone, and point of view (which the author says is not objective, which isn't really possible, but fair and candid). It is not a hagiography, but the biographer (Nibley's son-in-law) does not hide his admiration for Hugh when the final assessment is in.

It was fascinating to learn about Hugh's grandfather, Charles W. Nibley, presiding bishop of the Church and later, second counselor to Heber J. Grant in the First Presidency and a successful businessman in the timber industry. Hugh grew up surrounded by wealth, but his grandfather had serious doubts about even the possibility of being an ethical businessman, and his own standing before the Lord. Hugh saw his own parents' marriage weakened by wealth and subsequent failure of risky investments as the Great Depression wore on. Yet his grandfather and parents were very generous people. His grandfather was a supporter of limited work weeks and holidays for his workers, and due to this was always running into opposition from chambers of commerce. His mother never turned away transients who wanted a meal, following her parents' policy on helping those in need. This all was part of Hugh's ambivalence and later hostility towards money. Even people trying to do the right thing with their wealth could be seriously harmed by it.

I enjoyed learning a bit about Hugh's childhood, his self-confident yet self-effacing personality, his 6-week solo wilderness adventure in Oregon, his studies, and his time in the military (he drove one of the first Jeeps onto Utah Beach during the Allied invasion of France). His amazing aptitude for languages did take time to develop into the almost absurd capability he later had. (It was reassuring to learn that even with his talent, his enthusiasm outstripped his ability early on, as I believe it does for most people who learn languages very well. You have to care more about trying than about making mistakes.) His dislike of war, any war, was no distant, detached complaint, but a first-hand observation. (One of the things Hugh would never discuss was what he saw at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany after it was liberated.)

The list of interesting points goes on and on: Hugh's courting a German emigrée and later an Armenian woman, both of whom rejected him. The discussion of urban legends about Hugh (some true, some perhaps, some definitely not). His good friends made during his studies of Arabic, Coptic, Egyptian, and more. Quotations from his letters and interviews of friends and acquaintances. His publications in the Improvement Era (the Church's official magazine, equivalent of today's Ensign) and his involvement with the Church's general authorities (for example, Spencer W. Kimball as an Apostle), which was closer than I had known. His political opposition to Republicans and to the John Birch Society and its support by Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen, combined with common cause in so many areas with those same people. His visits with the Hopi Indians. His wilderness adventures. His family life. His teaching. And so much more.

Especially enlightening for me (and heartening) was the clear impression that Hugh Nibley was in no way perfect, nor even a model for me in many areas. He was his own person, filling important roles in certain places and times. As Elder Boyd K. Packer said of him, "He is one of a kind -- it is a very good kind." We can learn so much from Hugh Nibley, and find so many useful and inspirational ideas, yet need not worry about becoming fanatical followers -- he really didn't leave much room for that, constantly focusing on the Gospel instead of himself or any other individual.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the book was not particularly big: The typesetting was not all that well done. The writing itself was very good, and the editing of the text was good, with just a few mistakes. But the typesetting seems to have been done by someone with little experience and no eye for detail. Not only were there two annoying spaces between sentences, but indeed two spaces after every period, including in names. Ending quotation marks appeared at the beginning of quotations in some places. "Jeredites" appeared instead of "Jaredites" frequently in footnotes, though not in the body of the text. And so on. I hate to belabor such points, but as a former typesetter they drive me a bit crazy, and they don't do justice to the excellent writing.

The main annoyance I found in the writing was the occasional mild repetition due to the topical rather than chronological organization of the book. The author explained this organization up front, but it still was a little distracting. I think it grew out of the fact that the chapters were originally individual articles presented at conferences (Sunstone symposia and a few other places), rather than any inherent superiority of such a topical organization. But it's probably too much to ask that this be changed.

This is such a valuable and enjoyable book, that my main suggestion to the author is to someday publish a second edition that covers Hugh's last years (the book was finished in 2002, and Hugh died in 2005) and is re-typeset more competently. I enjoyed the couple of source texts included in the appendix, and wouldn't mind seeing more of those, though that isn't essential.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Hugh Nibley himself; in Church history; in gospel approaches to wealth, war, priesthood leadership, or the environment; or in studies of the Book of Mormon or Pearl of Great Price.

Other references:

4 comments:

  1. I have plans to read this, too. I could tell that you enjoyed it, Jon--any book that can make someone laugh out loud is intriguing to me. I've read much less of Nibley than you have, but what I have read has given me new ways to look at things. Thanks for writing such a great review of his biography!

    ReplyDelete
  2. _There Were Jaredites_ (not Jeredites, as possibly implied from above) is one of my favorites too. It sets out better than anywhere, I think, his approach to the Book of Mormon and its authenticity. His ability to turn the criticism on its head is delightful. To paraphrase one of my favorite ways he expresses this, "Joseph Smith rings the bell too many times to denote the marksmanship of one shooting in the dark."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Every once in a while you could see Hugh Nibley drive around Provo in his old Dodge. My favorite moment from his funeral was when his daughter disclosed Hugh Nibley's "Welcome Home, Baby" secret. Whenever they brought a new baby home from the hospital he would get a spoon and give the infant a taste of ice cream, "Welcome to earth." I started reading some of his articles but I think I need more time to mature in my English reading skills. I managed to enjoy Wallace Stegner though.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mirjam, I've heard those stories about people seeing Hugh Nibley driving around in his old Dodge, but it never happened to me. Of course, as I mentioned, I wasn't very aware of him till right before I moved away from Provo anyway. Did you attend his funeral in person?

    ReplyDelete