There are many different types of books on Mormon history: faith-promoting, exposé, amateur, academic, and popular, not to mention the many books that blur those boundaries. Here at JI, we usually focus on the academic variety, which usually implies those published by university presses, though we also often engage the many top-rate amateur books that make our field so lively and exhaustive. These are the type of books that are directed at the audience with which we are most familiar: either the small group of people especially interested in Mormon history in particular, or the broader academic community interested in religious history more generally.
But I’d like to spend a post, and hopefully a discussion, on the popular. With this category, I mean those books that are especially directed at a popular audience that is usually outside the boundaries of who typically buys a book on Mormon history. This could include the general LDS readership—those members of the faith who may not be committed to the academic world of books, but who are interested when there is a work that catches their eye and seems interesting. This is the audience that have made a handful of academic presses crave more books on Mormonism. This is the historian’s dream: writing a book that not only Mormon history buffs collect, but that finds a way to reach a print run that cracks the four digits—or, in the very rare cases, perhaps even sells more than 10,000 copies. We’ve seen a handful of works do this in the last few years, with John Turner’s biography of Brigham Young perhaps being the most notable. And then there are the few books that drastically outpace nearly every other book in Mormon history, like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Walker/Turley/Leonard’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows, both of which reached numbers few could even dream of. But again, except for the latter two volumes, even most of the best-selling books in Mormon history don’t fall into the “popular” category. Most are still published by small independent or university presses, and written in a way that is directed to a certain type of audience.
So my question is, why don’t we have more “popular” Mormon history books? I’m not talking about those sold in Deseret Book, but those sold in Costco. Why don’t we, for instance, see more Mormon history books of such a popular genre that they’d be sold in, say, an airport bookstore?
Allow me to explain a bit more about what I mean by this “popular” category, which I think includes three major elements: content, style, and venue. By “content,” I mean a topic that would be interesting to people who typically don’t geek out over the type of stuff we geeks do. This usually means less a theoretical, historiographical, or discipline-focused topic, but more often a narrative that deals with a big issue that still holds special relevance to us today. By style, I mean works that are mostly free of jargon and historiographical debates, but rather express clearly and directly the story or argument—and it almost is a story rather than an argument—at hand. And by venue, I mean a popular and trade press that is experienced in and prepared for distributing books to a wide range of audiences. I’m talking the Knopf, Hill & Wang, Simon & Schuester, Random House, Basic Books, and Houghton Mifflin types of the world.
These books are usually written by three different types of people: seasoned academics, journalists, and professional writers. In the first category, it is usually the most esteemed historians who have established themselves in the academy, have achieved job security, conquered their field, and blissfully dream of reaching a wider audience. In my field of early American history, Alan Taylor is probably most notable. The second category includes those who write for newspapers or magazines but shed their writing talents—and let’s face it, they usually have immense writing talent, even if they still have to prove their historical chops—into large biographies and other historical works; Jon Meacham is one of the better examples. As for the third group, which is considerably smaller because very few can make it as a professional writer; just think of David McCullough.
So, back to my question: why aren’t there more popular history books on Mormonism? Three quality attempts that come to mind from the last decade are Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, Joanna Brooks’s Book of Mormon Girl (which really isn’t history, of course, but close enough for merit), and our own Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People. The other popular books that deal with Mormonism and break what I’d call the “Airport Bookstore Barrier” fall with in a certain type of genre: Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, and the rotating list of polygamy exposés of Mormon fundamentalism written by a former plural wife. Is this all that Mormonism has to offer the general public? Do average readers want to know nothing more about Mormonism than sex, lies, and extremism? (On second thought, don’t answer that question.)
Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t have the seasoned, established scholars who have focused on Mormonism throughout their careers. In our small sample size, Richard Bushman succeeded with a popular biography published by Knopf, and two more hopefully-successful books should be on the way from Laurel Ulrich (also Knopf) and Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Basic Book). Will we see more of this as the younger generation of Mormon studies scholars mature in their professions?
But further, why haven’t journalists or professional writers turned to (non-Fundamentalist) Mormon topics, especially during a period when Mormonism seems so “hot”? The few exceptions are works like Stephen Mansfield’s Mormonizing of America and other similar books that were driven by the Mitt Romney presidential run. However, this year might see a start of a new trend: Alex Beam, a journalist with the Boston Globe, is publishing American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church (PublicAffairs). I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to when it comes out in a couple months. Perhaps if it sells well, it will be the first of many.
I’m curious if I’m alone in these thoughts. Do others wonder the paucity of popular history books on Mormonism that reach a non-Mormon, non-academic audiece? Is that a good thing? (As an early Americanist, I can tell you there is often consternation about the many popular books on the topic whose quality come nowhere close to their distribution.) Will this be another component of the emergent Mormon studies that will develop as the field matures? Will the general public ever become interested in Mormon topics outside of polygamy, violence, and our involvement with the Illuminati?