Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review of The Lost Book of Mormon by Avi Steinberg

The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, & Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication Date: October 21, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Source: Publisher, through NetGalley

Avi Steinberg’s The Lost Book of Mormon is a tough book to characterize, a hybrid of memoir, travelogue, literary and cultural criticism, and humor. Steinberg, a non-Mormon, sets out on a journey, both literal and figurative, to explore some of the landscapes important in the Book of Mormon. Along the way, he considers the meaning of scripture as a kind of uber-fiction, and makes a case for treating the Book of Mormon as an important work of 19th century American literature. Steinberg’s book is thought-provoking, interesting, and even hilarious in parts, but contains perhaps a few too many distracting tangents.

The Story: In 1823, Joseph Smith, the son of a backwoods farmer, swore that a visiting angel told him to dig in a hill near his family’s farm in upstate New York. Smith dug, and allegedly found the hidden history of America engraved on a series of gold plates. Smith “translated” these gold plates from an ancient hieroglyphic language into English, and published this as the Book of Mormon in 1830. The book became instantly popular with an American public deeply fascinated by both Indian lore and treasure-hunting.

Steinberg, who grew up in both Israel and Cleveland, Ohio, describes himself as a lapsed Orthodox Jew and professes to a fascination with religious texts in general, and the Book of Mormon in particular. In The Lost Book of Mormon, Steinberg travels the path of the characters in Joseph’s Smith’s text, from Jerusalem to the ruined Mayan cities in Guatemala and southern Mexico, and Hill Cumorah in upstate New York.

At every location along his journey, Steinberg offers an analysis of Smith not as a religious prophet but as a writer, a “regular Joe” as Steinberg calls him, who wrote a story and then had the tremendous audacity to publish it not just as a work of fiction or nonfiction, but as a bible. To Steinberg, Smith should be considered as one of 19th century America’s literary giants along with Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain. His Book of Mormon, Steinberg argues, is a quintessential American literary epic with a picaresque hero, Nephi, who predates Melville’s Ishmael and Twain’s Huck Finn; perhaps it’s even the Great American Novel. And yet few literary and cultural critics have given serious consideration to Smith’s work.

My Thoughts: I confess to a strong fascination with Mormonism as a cultural phenomenon, although I’m not a Mormon myself. It’s hard not to be fascinated with a religion less than 200 years old, whose origins seem like something out of a science fiction tale. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to read a copy of this book for Nonfiction November.

And I did find The Lost Book of Mormon truly interesting. Steinberg writes movingly of his interest in Smith as a writer and of the process of writing itself, that amazing act of creation that brings to life the stories that become so important to us. Steinberg can be enormously funny, as well. The middle of the book is a long set piece about a bus tour of Mayan archeological sites, with Steinberg as the only non-believer among two large clans of Mormons; it had me laughing out loud and quoting lines to my somewhat bemused family.

The book, however, is a tad heavy on personal anecdotes. Steinberg deviates frequently into lengthy, sometimes meandering digressions that don’t add much to his argument about Smith’s place in American literature. The book is, sometimes, a bit of a glorious mess. Maybe it’s best to go into The Lost Book of Mormon without expecting too much of it as a work of literary or cultural criticism . . . Just let Steinberg take you on a strange and amusing journey, and enjoy the ride.

In the end, Steinberg is not very interested in whether the stories in the Book of Mormon—and by extension, ALL stories--are literally “true” or not. Instead, he’s concerned with what those stories tell us about ourselves, and how the tellers of those tales find their inspiration and bring the stories to life. “The world is full of buried books,” Steinberg tells us, and writers, like Joseph Smith with his gold plates, must unearth them and tell the tales for their readers. “They’re there. That’s no bullshit. Other people don’t need to believe in that, but if you want to be a writer, you do. You must have faith. The gold plates are real: every book is a translation of them.” As readers, let's hope that writers keep finding those gold plates of inspiration and telling us their wonderful tales.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher, Nan A. Talese, through NetGalley.


  1. Mormanism is a fascinating religion...I loved Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, which you've probably already read since you're interested in the topic. But, you definitely need to read it if you haven't already!

    1. I did read Under the Banner of Heaven--very interesting, although I think it was actually my least favorite Krakauer book. Yeah, Mormonism is truly fascinating as a social and cultural phenomenon. Hmm, maybe there should be a Nonfic November post on the various books about Mormonism . . . .

  2. Not sure if my last comment went through... so I'm going to type it again! I think it's absolutely fascinating that he claims that the Book of Mormon should be treated as an important work of American literature. It definitely makes sense! It sounds like an imperfect book, but one that definitely has some interesting things to say. Thank you for sharing!

    1. It really WAS such an interesting perspective! I'm glad I read it, despite some of the book's imperfections.