book review – On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary

This was a great, slim (I want to say little but I found it quite powerful) read.

excellent insights on many levels

When Richard Bushman sent the final proofs of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to the publisher, he started an author’s diary which he kept regularly for the following year, through publishing, reviews, book signings, lectures, and more. This slim book is that diary, and in just 130 pages it delivers the insights of several books. I think the book will be interesting to biographers who will see kindred struggles, to writers seeking to reach diverse audiences, and to Mormons who seek orthodoxy without sacrificing intellect. (It will be most interesting, however, if you have read Rough Stone Rolling.)

In the pages of this diary, we read Bushman’s candid reactions to reviews: “I realize I don’t like to read any kind of review, even the favorable ones. I am annoyed by what the reviewers choose to emphasize in Joseph’s life. Most of them pick up a few fragments and present them as if they were the key elements” (31-32). He also admits to monitoring other indicators of reception: “I look up my Amazon rank a couple of times a day. I tell myself I am curious about how the system works, but it is mostly vanity I know” (55). The play-by-play response to reviews illustrate the frustration of an author in seeking for his work to be understood and seeing reviewers read only part of the book or completely miss the point.

Bushman also provides some of his own doctrinal exposition. He is a practicing Mormon (a patriarch and a temple sealer, both respected positions in the Church) with – as he puts it – an orthodox testimony. “A man…said, I bet your testimony is different from that of people in this room. I said it was, but that I believed in the gold plates” (108). He shares in this very personal book some of his views on our relationship to God (60-61), his view of a potential new public persona for the Church (105-106), and spiritual counsel on how to deal with doubts about Joseph Smith (110-111).

Bushman’s principal dilemma in writing Rough Stone Rolling was trying to speak to both believing Mormons (many of whom have heard only praise for Joseph Smith throughout their lives) and curious non-Mormons (many of whom have never taken Smith seriously despite his accomplishments). As he reads reviews and gives talks, it becomes clear that he has lost some of the Mormons (one unnamed General Authority suggests his book will provide ammunition for anti-Mormons, others are supportive) and many of the non-Mormons (who see him as too sympathetic). He formulates an alternative approach he could have used to help non-Mormons along, and he questions (but ultimately defends) his decision to be explicit in his position as a practicing Mormon. Throughout, and especially in an essay he includes in the last few pages (123-127), he explores the question of how much of oneself to insert into a biography.

Finally, on a personal note, I enjoyed encountering books and people I have read. He talks about Greg Prince’s recent (excellent) David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and about having interactions with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know). He talks about interactions with Church leaders – Elder Holland, Elder Packer. These made the book feel a little more like family.

Fascinating, quick read, with parts to be enjoyed more than once. Highly recommended.

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