Lesson learned this week: short of criticizing Glenn Beck, the best way to generate a response from Mormon readers is to ask for book recommendations.
Indeed, last week's article soliciting potential additions to my Thoughtful Mormon Reading List produced scores of e-mails and online comments, with a final list weighing in at about 200 books.
I have to confess, I didn't have time to do extensive research on each of the titles. I did, however, read at least a little bit about each book recommended (some of you made it easy on me by providing synopses in your e-mails) and below I've compiled a list of eight books I thought best fit the criteria I outlined last week.
Now before you read on, I should include two important caveats. First, I can't vouch for the "truth" of the ideas and philosophies illustrated in these books. One reason is that I haven't actually read all of them, but more importantly, I think I'd be hard pressed to find any book (apart from the Standard Works) that contains nothing but capital-T truth. In a way, that's what makes reading and studying so exhilarating — and essential to Mormon life. If we are to spend our mortal existences searching for truth, it will require sifting through a lot of not-entirely-true ideas and gleaning whatever good they contain.
Second, this list hardly represents an exhaustive catalog of books to be read by intellectual Latter-day Saints. There are, of course, many, many more that are worth studying. If you're interested in the complete list of books readers suggested in the past week, feel free to e-mail me, and I'd be happy to send it along.
And with that, I present to you the 2010 Arbitrary, Not-at-all-exhaustive Thoughtful Mormon Reading List:
"Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time," by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
This book describes the work of a mountain climber-turned-humanitarian who is convinced that curing the problems in the Middle East must begin with educating young women in the region. The Central Asia Institute, co-founded by Mortenson, has built more than 131 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan to achieve this purpose. Earlier this year, he spoke at a BYU forum, and his message provoked an immense amount of discussion on campus. With the threats posed by radical Islam today, there are few geopolitical issues more pertinent that solving the Middle East debacle.
As one reader pointed out, "The Doctrine & Covenants tells us that there is much in the Apocrypha that is beneficial if we read it with the Spirit." Indeed, general authorities have occasionally quoted from the ancient text (which is not a part of LDS canon) in teaching eternal principles. The Standard Works, of course, are more enlightened, but the Apocrypha can provide complementary insights to our scripture study.
In the same vein, more than one reader suggested The Koran. Given the current political climate, and the fiery debate over the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, this may prove to be a controversial recommendation. But as one reader argued, "At the very least, it seems to me that reading the Koran would be essential in understanding a major world religion that seems very misunderstood."
"Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns," by Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson
When I compiled a similar Mormon reading list last year, I included Clayton Christensen's seminal business theory book, "The Innovator's Dilemma." This year, I'm adding a book he co-authored applying the "disruptive innovation" theory to education reform. Christensen, who served as an Area Seventy for the LDS Church, diagnoses several problems facing public education in America and explains how modern technologies might solve them. Mormons have long understood the value of learning, and I believe this book contains ideas that could markedly improve the quality of education being provided in the U.S.
"The Screwtape Letters," by C.S. Lewis
I hesitate to include a C.S. Lewis book here, only because it often seems that every Mormon in the world has already devoured his collected works. Rarely does a BYU religion class or sacrament meeting pass without one of Lewis's shrewd Christian observations being offered as a complement to scripture. And with good reason. In this endlessly clever collection of (fictional) letters between two "devils," Lewis reveals with astonishing insight how believers can unwittingly succumb to temptations and lose their faith.
"The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," by Benjamin Franklin
I read this slim memoir in high school and have often thought of it since. Historians have since revealed that many of the details in Franklin's account of his own life were embellished — but that doesn't make them any less inspirational (or entertaining). I especially recommend the section about his effort to achieve "moral perfection": funny, insightful, and maybe even a little instructive.
"Man's Search for Meaning," by Viktor Frankl
This book was probably the most oft-recommended by readers. Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, sought with this work to answer a rather terrifying question: "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the minds of the average prisoner?" I have not read it, but according the numerous readers who have, his fight to maintain his will to live while in the camp is at once heartbreaking and inspirational. This may be the first book on the list that I read.
"The Physics of Christianity," by Frank TiplerComment on this story
Praised by critics for his fiercely intellectual approach to science and Christianity, Tipler argues that religion is not disproved by physics — and that, in fact, it may be supported by it. Of course, relying on scientific "evidence" can be a fraught approach to faith, and so his ideas should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But I have often argued that science and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, and it seems like this book might be a good place to start examining the overlap.