Title: Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies
Editor: Doris R. Dant
Publisher: BYU Press
Genre: Personal Essays Anthology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: ix; 261
Binding: Trade Paperback
Available from Deseret Book and other sources.
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. Review originally posted at A Motley Vision:
Mormon Arts and Culture blog.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book from the editor.
A good personal essay is like an evening spent in front of a fireplace with
a longtime friend. It's not about drama and high emotion. Nor is it about
polished literary style--though there is a style and a demanding literary
craft to writing such essays well. The essence of that craft lies in the
achievement of a clear, intimate, authentic voice, as if the author were
indeed a close and trusted friend. The satisfaction we as readers take from
the experience springs in large measure from that sense of connection.
The other key to a good personal essay is the quiet insights it provides
into ordinary life. Personal essays are the genre of the quotidian, focused
into insight and clarity (there's that word again) through the lens of an
author's mental reflection and then offered up for the reader's recognition
and acknowledgment. The underlying ethos of every personal essay is our
essential similarity as human beings. As Jane D. Brady (author of one of
the essays published in this collection) puts it: "There's not a chasm
between normal, functioning human beings and the bums on the street with no
job and no life. There's one hair's breadth. Disaster is one step off the
sidewalk. It is one migraine away" (p. 198). Personal essays persuade us of
this truth (just as applicable to miracles as disasters) through a
combination of narrated occurrence and quiet observation. We ponder the
writer's insights, resonate with the writer's experiences, and feel that we
know ourselves better as a result.
"Adventures of the Soul: The Best Creative Nonfiction from BYU Studies"
makes accessible 25 high-quality contributions to this genre, well suited
to the tastes of orthodox Mormons who enjoy thoughtful reflection on what
it means to be Mormon and what it means to be human. The essays--ranging
from memories of World War II among the Latter-day Saints in an Australian
branch to insights interwoven with recuperation from back surgery--are
organized into the 4 categories of International Vistas, Family Views,
Gospel Reflections, and Introspection. Truthfully, though, all of the
essays strike me as being in some sense about family, self, and gospel,
each set in its own specific geographical, cultural, and temporal frame.
Personal essays in venues such as "Dialogue" and "Sunstone" often explore
what it's like to be in the boundary areas of Mormon experience. The essays
in "Adventures of the Soul," in contrast, stay away from the edges but
drill down deep into what it means to be a thoughtful mainstream Mormon in
a range of life circumstances. There's no controversy, but plenty of fodder
for reflection and sharing.
The presentation of these essays matches the quality of their content. The
book is beautifully composed and typeset, featuring grayscale photographs
of waterfalls that harmonize with the thoughtful and reflective tone of the
content. Overall, it's an ideal gift for the thoughtful, believing Mormon
on your Christmas, birthday, or Mother's/Father's Day list who may not care
for fiction but who likes to read and think about human experience.
I do have a few minor quibbles. The Introduction (by editor Doris Dant)
provides thoughtful teasers about the specific essays included in the
volume and how they fit within the myriad potentialities of the personal
essay form. However, it doesn't supply any information about how essays for
this particular "best of" anthology were selected--and from how large a
pool. I couldn't help but notice that only two of the personal essays dated
from prior to Volume 35 (published in 1995-96). Does this reflect a change
in frequency of publication of personal essays in "BYU Studies" starting
about 15 years ago, or an editorial process that found more recent essays
to be of higher quality?
It would also be interesting to know how many personal essays "BYU Studies"
publishes in a typical year, and who is eligible to submit them. Members of
the BYU community only? Alumni? Anyone? What types of essays are they
looking for? This kind of information is likely to be of interest to many
of those who might read the anthology.
An editorial point that annoyed me in reading the essays was the lack of
any headnote or footnote giving the date of original publication:
information that would have help create a proper mental context for my
reading. Irritatingly, the About the Authors entries at the end of the book
included volume and issue number for the original publication, but not dates.
These complaints, however, are minor compared to the many strengths and
pleasures offered by this volume. My only real regret is that, due to the
fragmented nature of the Mormon market, it's likely that many people who
would enjoy this book will never have the opportunity to read it.