Title: Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies
Editor: Doris R. Dant
Publisher: BYU Press
Genre: Personal Essays Anthology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: ix; 261
Binding: Trade Paperback
Available from Deseret Book and other sources.
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the editor.
A good personal essay is like an evening spent in front of a fireplace with a longtime friend. It’s not about drama and high emotion. Nor is it about polished literary style — though there is a style and a demanding literary craft to writing such essays well. The essence of that craft lies in the achievement of a clear, intimate, authentic voice, as if the author were indeed a close and trusted friend. The satisfaction we as readers take from the experience springs in large measure from that sense of connection.
The other key to a good personal essay is the quiet insights it provides into ordinary life. Personal essays are the genre of the quotidian, focused into insight and clarity (there’s that word again) through the lens of an author’s mental reflection and then offered up for the reader’s recognition and acknowledgment. The underlying ethos of every personal essay is our essential similarity as human beings. As Jane D. Brady (author of one of the essays published in this collection) puts it: “There’s not a chasm between normal, functioning human beings and the bums on the street with no job and no life. There’s one hair’s breadth. Disaster is one step off the sidewalk. It is one migraine away” (p. 198). Personal essays persuade us of this truth (just as applicable to miracles as disasters) through a combination of narrated occurrence and quiet observation. We ponder the writer’s insights, resonate with the writer’s experiences, and feel that we know ourselves better as a result.
Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies makes accessible 25 high-quality contributions to this genre, well suited to the tastes of orthodox Mormons who enjoy thoughtful reflection on what it means to be Mormon and what it means to be human. The essays — ranging from memories of World War II among the Latter-day Saints in an Australian branch to insights interwoven with recuperation from back surgery — are organized into the 4 categories of International Vistas, Family Views, Gospel Reflections, and Introspection. Truthfully, though, all of the essays strike me as being in some sense about family, self, and gospel, each set in its own specific geographical, cultural, and temporal frame.
Personal essays in venues such as Dialogue and Sunstone often explore what it’s like to be in the boundary areas of Mormon experience. The essays in Adventures of the Soul, in contrast, stay away from the edges but drill down deep into what it means to be a thoughtful mainstream Mormon in a range of life circumstances. There’s no controversy, but plenty of fodder for reflection and sharing.
The presentation of these essays matches the quality of their content. The book is beautifully composed and typeset, featuring grayscale photographs of waterfalls that harmonize with the thoughtful and reflective tone of the content. Overall, it’s an ideal gift for the thoughtful, believing Mormon on your Christmas, birthday, or Mother’s/Father’s Day list who may not care for fiction but who likes to read and think about human experience.
I do have a few minor quibbles. The Introduction (by editor Doris Dant) provides thoughtful teasers about the specific essays included in the volume and how they fit within the myriad potentialities of the personal essay form. However, it doesn’t supply any information about how essays for this particular “best of” anthology were selected — and from how large a pool. I couldn’t help but notice that only two of the personal essays dated from prior to Volume 35 (published in 1995-96). Does this reflect a change in frequency of publication of personal essays in BYU Studies starting about 15 years ago, or an editorial process that found more recent essays to be of higher quality?
It would also be interesting to know how many personal essays BYU Studies publishes in a typical year, and who is eligible to submit them. Members of the BYU community only? Alumni? Anyone? What types of essays are they looking for? This kind of information is likely to be of interest to many of those who might read the anthology.
An editorial point that annoyed me in reading the essays was the lack of any headnote or footnote giving the date of original publication: information that would have help create a proper mental context for my reading. Irritatingly, the About the Authors entries at the end of the book included volume and issue number for the original publication, but not dates.
These complaints, however, are minor compared to the many strengths and pleasures offered by this volume. My only real regret is that due to the fragmented nature of the Mormon market, it’s likely that many people who would enjoy this book will never have the opportunity to read it.