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Monday, October 1, 2012

In Memory of Richard Cracroft and the "Book Nook"

by Scott Hales (bio)

Mormon letters recently lost one of its greatest champions, Professor Richard H. Cracroft, who passed away on Thursday, September 20, at the age of 76. From 1963 to 2001, Professor Cracroft taught English at Brigham Young University, served as the dean of the College of Humanities, coordinated the American Studies program, and directed the Center of Christian Values in Literature. He also served faithfully in various church callings, including bishop, stake president, and mission president for the Switzerland Zürich Mission.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to meet Professor Cracroft. I will always remember him, though, as the author of Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature, an important essay on Mormon literary criticism. I will also remember his monthly "Book Nook" column in BYU Magazine, which he used to introduce readers to lesser-known books by Mormon authors. When Professor Cracroft's health problems forced him to discontinue the column last year, BYU Magazine lost its one true gem.

In honor of Professor Cracroft's life and work, I'd like to do a one-time Book Nook column of my own here on MMM. As a rule, Professor Cracroft always limited his column to books by BYU graduates. I'm not going to be that strict. I hope he doesn't mind.

Hephzibah by Emmeline B. Wells
In 2012, Mormon novelists are as common as pennies under the couch. But that wasn't the case in 1889 when Emmeline B. Wells serialized Hephzibah in The Women's Exponent. Since it was never published in book form, though, this novel—the first, I believe, by a Mormon woman—was forgotten about. Fortunately, Ben Crowder and folks at the Mormon Texts Project have painstakingly transcribed the book from digitized issues of the Exponent, edited it for clarity, and made it available for free in various e-book formats on their website.

The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith by Matthew Bowman
I recently finished this well-written and highly readable overview of Mormon history from Joseph Smith to The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Bowman, who seems to be everywhere these days talking about Mormonism, does an excellent job placing Mormonism within the American story. Elsewhere, I've compared reading the book to the odd feeling you get when you see yourself in old pictures of your grandparents. Ever wonder why Mormons are so reverent in sacrament meeting? Or why all church buildings look the same? Or why no one busts out in good old fashioned glossolalia anymore? Bowman has the answers in this book.

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner
Turner isn't a Mormon, but he writes about them. And apparently he does a pretty good job. I haven't read this book yet, but I hear it gives readers a more complex portrait of the Lion of the Lord than Leonard J. Arrington's 1985 biography Brigham Young: American Moses. Which is good news since I only got a third of the way through that book before I got sidetracked and put it back on the shelf.

Tongue of Fire by David McKnight
This is one of the latest Mormon novels to hit the shelf. It's got everything a book-savvy Modern Mormon Man could want: a floundering football team, moral dilemmas, a down-on-his-luck dad who can't help but follow the Spirit, and a mega-church in need of a preacher. That's right: a mega-church. At 344 pages, this one promises to keep you entertained for a while. Unless you’re one of those speed-readers. At any rate: you should check it out.

The Five Books of Jesus by James Goldberg
Okay. I'm biased. James is a friend and a recent guest-poster on MMM. But the guy can write! If you're not already familiar with his blogging, personal essays, and plays (James won an AML award for his play Prodigal Son back in 2008), you should start with this book and work backwards from there. Newly published, this book is a retelling of the life of Jesus filtered through James' highly-inventive midrashic imagination. The first chapter is available online. Take a look. And don't forget to admire the cover by Nick Stephens.

I’m sure wherever Professor Cracroft is in Spirit Paradise, he's got a book with him. Let's all honor his memory and read a Mormon-authored book sometime before 2012 ends and new books come along.

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