Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John Taylor on Books

7.8.12 | | 7 comments
JohnTaylor

John Taylor

Its not unusual these days to hear complaints that there are too many books. I know I’ve heard it from those in the book industry for at least 20 years, and I’ve long suspected that such complaints have been going on much longer. But I was quite surprised when I came across this complaint in an early Mormon periodical that there were too many books being published.

Really? In 1842?

As near as I can tell, something like 100 times as many books are published each year as were published in 1842 (exact numbers are difficult to find, and depend on the database you use). Regardless of the accurate numbers, its a lot more. So, why do so many people complain or remark that too many books are being published?

I suspect that it has a lot to do with the overwhelming amount of information and reading that they represent. How can anyone read through so many books, be it the million or whatever published today or the ten thousand or whatever in 1842?

Personally, I don’t think I could actually read more than 100 books in a year. Even in 1842, the dozen books Taylor sees published on Mormonism that year is probably more than most individuals read in a year.

Here’s how he reacted:

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Books

by John Taylor (presumed author)[1]

‘And further, by these, my son, be admonished of making many books, there is no end.’—Ecclesiastes 12:12[2].

It is impossible to give an outline of the books that have graced or disgraced the world since the beginning. In the days of the Judges in Israel there was a populous place, called the City of Books[3], and in this printing age and land of light it cannot be supposed less than truth to say that the new world is deluged with papers, pamphlets, tracts and books, good and bad, wise and wicked, sentimental and foolish, and earthly and catchpenny. In fact New England has blackened paper enough to have covered the United States—in the way of book making—and all for a little money.

Mormonism has been an exhaustless fountain to intoxicate leaky brains: Book has followed book, giving a full and complete history of the Latter-Day Saints; and yet every few months quickens and brings forth a new book, full of alarming disclosures or curious matter about startling enough to make vox faucibus haesit[4]. A book a year, at first, was not a very heavy tax upon the purses of the purchasers of second handed stories; but as the Mormons increased the books increased, and this year has come near its dozen—from the Missouri monster down to the striped pig of Boston Massachusetts by J. C. Bennett.

Well, all we shall say is that the world is determined to write us into note, and whether it be done by lies, or truth, or persecution or patronage is all the same, so that the will of God be done.

The Wasp, 10 December 1842, p. 2

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The Mormon Bibliography actually includes 57 items (including many that are not books) published in 1842, so there were probably more than Taylor was thinking of, but perhaps he only meant books written by outsiders (I count 19). Regardless, it was already more than most people want to read. And how many are there today? I’m quite sure there are more than 1,000 new books about Mormonism or with a significant mention of mormons or mormonism in them published each year.

But to my mind the more interesting part of Taylor’s reaction is the attitude expressed in the final sentence. There, he doesn’t seem willing to engage each and every argument in all the books published. Instead, he seems to suggest that the books will simply give Mormonism notoriety and by doing so achive the will of God.

The idea is kind of like the expression attributed to P. T. Barnum: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Whether Barnum said that is in doubt, so Oscar Wilde’s statement might serve better: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

While the veracity of these dictums are themselves wrong (I’m sure BP believes in bad publicity these days), what may be true is the belief that disputing the details of claims in anti-Mormon books is often a waste of time. Perhaps this is something that deserves a bit more thought, given the recent uproar in the bloggernacle about the changes at BYU’s Maxwell Institute, which signaled the end of the agenda once embodied in FARMS.

In contrast, we might look at the publicity coup won by Mormon neologist and 19-year-old rookie baseball phenom Bryce Harper, who turned a beer company’s effort to make money on his widely-publicized comment into a win-win charitable effort.

I don’t know about John Taylor, but I wish I could come up with smart PR moves like that!

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Notes

  1. No author is indicated. Although he had apparently been editing The Wasp for some time, this was the first issue in which Taylor was named as the editor. Unsigned work was often the work of the editor.
  2. The King James Version gives an inaccurate sense here, suggesting no end to books. Instead, the author says that studying books is endless and exhausting.
  3. a rough translation of the pre-Israelite city name ‘Kiriath-sepher,’ perhaps better translated as “scribe town” or “town of the treaty stele” — per entry in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992).
  4. [you] speechless; so astonished as to be unable to speak. Literally “voice stuck in throat”

7 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John Taylor on Books

  1. Eugene

    Back in 1894, one Octave Uzanne penned a similar complaint in Scribner’s Magazine, and in the process somehow managed to predict the Walkman, the audio book, and even television.

    “I calculate that, take the whole world over, from eighty to one hundred thousand books appear every year; at an average of a thousand copies, this makes more than a hundred millions of books, the majority of which contain only the wildest extravagances or the most chimerical follies, and propagate only prejudice and error. Our social condition forces us to hear many stupid things every day. A few more or less do not amount to very great suffering in the end; but what happiness not to be obliged to read them.”

    (Beginning the article with a report of Sir William Thomson’s calculation of the age of the sun makes for an ironic and illustrative footnote. Unfortunately for Sir Thomson, the publication of the special theory of relativity was a decade away. His math was fine, but the results would soon be rendered scientifically irrelevant.)

  2. Mark Penny

    Well, thank goodness there’s no Academy deciding what will and won’t be published. Publishing houses do their best, I’m sure, but, fortunately, there’s a fair degree of diversity in that sphere. Mutation and selection are alive and well.

  3. Kent Larsen Post author

    Eugene, a fascinating story. I’ve downloaded Uzanne’s pamphlet and will read it.

    Mark, I’m not sure what you are referring to. I’m not aware of any country in the world where there is an Academy that decides what will and won’t be published.

    If you are referring to the French Academy, I think you misunderstand what it is about. As I understand it, its role is more about grammar than censorship.

  4. Mark Penny

    I was indeed referring to the French Academy, which, as you say, deals with language, not literature. The reference was metaphorical. Inherent in the suggestion that there’s too much literature is the suggestion that some sort of control over literature would be desirable. In totalitarian regimes, they have censors. In democratic regimes, we might go with an Academy.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    Mark, I think you are overreaching. Taylor didn’t go there, nor did I.

    In any case, the “genie is out of the bottle” so to speak. I don’t see any way that the volume of new titles can be controlled in any way.

    IMO, the issues Taylor had with the volume of posts are of secondary interest compared with the more interesting and relevant issue of how to respond to the volume of criticisms of Mormonism.

  6. Mark Penny

    Its not unusual these days to hear complaints that there are too many books.

    I came across this complaint in an early Mormon periodical that there were too many books being published.

    So, why do so many people complain or remark that too many books are being published?

    I don’t think I accused anyone in particular of going anywhere in particular, but the first two paragraphs of your post use the phrase “too many books are being published” three times. You’re right that Taylor doesn’t say anything about too many books being published. He simply remarks that an increasing number of books about Mormons and Mormonism are being published. The second quote from your first paragraph interprets the quote differently, however. Meanwhile, I was responding to the suggestion, which you make three times in the first two paragraphs of your introduction, that some people feel that too many books are being published. I don’t for a moment believe that you feel that way. You make quite clear that your problem is not having time to read them all, not that they exist. Perhaps you took my comment as an attack. I have seen attacks happen in the Moblogs, but I never make them. I’m sorry if you thought I was unjustly accusing anyone. I was not even accusing, let alone accusing unjustly.

  7. Mark Penny

    In context, my reply probably sounds a bit snarky. Not the intent.

    Kent, I’m a faithful reader of your Sunday Lit Crit Sermons because they are interesting in and of themselves and because it’s nice to be made aware of little pieces of LDS literary heritage I would otherwise be unaware of. I like to leave a token of my support when I enjoy something and, since there’s no like button, I comment. Sometimes there’s nothing in the main drive of the piece that gets me thinking beyond taking it in, so I respond to something peripheral that does. In this case it was the “too many books” business. I’m glad too many books get published. The excess makes room for talent and insight. Out of this mess of blackened paper some things of lasting value will distill.

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