Early thoughts on “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text”

FedEx showed up about a few hours ago with my pre-ordered copy of Royal Skousen’s magnum opus, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press, 2009, 848 pages). This volume represents over 20 years of work on Skousen’s part to produce a critical text edition of the Book of Mormon.  I’ve been buried in the volume — starting at the front and working my way through — since it appeared. Having made it as far as 1 Nephi 10 (First Book of Nephi, chapter III, in the 1830 edition), I thought I’d come up for air long enough to log a few comments.

First, the physical production of the volume is outstanding (as one would expect from Yale University Press). High quality paper and binding, outstanding layout and typography. The book is large and heavy (as per Amazon, 9.3 x 7.6 x 2.3 inches and 3.6 lbs) but manages to stay open even near the front and back. The heft of the book makes it a bit hard (though not impossible) to read while stretched out on the couch.

Grant Hardy’s introduction lays out the case for accepting the Book of Mormon as a serious work worthy of study in the context of world religions — all the more so because we have so much definite historical and even forensic information regarding its creation and transmission (cf. Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon).

Skousen’s editorial preface in turn provides a brief overview of his methodology in producing the critical text, laying out his overall approach as well as some of his criteria in making critical text decisions. However, he rightly points readers to his multi-volume series on the Book of Mormon Critical Text project for detailed explanations as to item-by-item decisions regarding recovery or conjecture of the critical text.

Skousen also explains his presentation of the critical text: sense lines, (mostly) modern spelling, de novo punctuation, blank lines to indicate paragraph breaks, and a typographic insertion to mark Joseph Smith’s original chapter indications. Modern (LDS 1981 edition) chapter and verse indications are given in the left margin.

Note that the punctuation, sense line breaks, and paragraph breaks are Skousen’s; the original manuscript had none, and the printer’s manuscript didn’t have much more. Skousen describes his process thus:

As I prepared each section of The Earliest Text, I started with one long string of unpunctuated words. I first broke the text into sense-lines (described below); I then added the accidentals (punctuation and capitalization) as needed in order to make the syntax clear. (p. xlii)

Skousen then spends several paragraphs outlining his approach to sense-lines and paragraphs. While most paragraphs comprise some number of modern verses, Skousen is willing to break across modern verse or even chapter divisions, though he only does so occasionally. I suspect that what criticism Skousen receives on this volume will come here, since he is in effect inserting himself to the text. On the other hand, I frankly think he’s done a better job than Orson Pratt did back in 1879, and as I got into the text itself, I found myself wishing for an edition that left out the modern chapter and verse numbers (though I could simply use a bookmark to cover up the left margin). And since even the printer’s manuscript was (in the words of the 1830 typesetter, John Gilbert) “one solid paragraph, without a punctuation mark, from beginning to end” (cited on p. xlii), I much prefer Skousen’s approach to wading through a single mass of undifferentiated and unpunctuated text.

And the text is wonderful. Layout and typography make it very easy to read, and the presentation brings a fresh look to a very familiar text. I’ve worked my way through most of the five “Textual Variants” volumes published by Skousen to date, so I’m not reading this to pick up on those modifications per se (though Skousen lists in an appendix what he considers to be significant textual changes). Instead, I am imagining myself in a small room as Joseph dictates and someone transcribes. It is a powerful experience, one which I’m about to go back to.

Highly recommended.  ..bruce..

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2 thoughts on “Early thoughts on “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text”

  1. BFWebster: I found myself wishing for an edition that left out the modern chapter and verse numbers.

    I’ve made a variety of versions in Word files. I have one that is one long paragraph, one that is broken into natural-seeming paragraphs, and one that has 6 levels of headings added. If you’d like me to email any to you, let me know and I’d be happy to share.

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