Brant Gardner’s Labor Dilgently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture

Brant Gardner’s “Labor Dilgently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture,” serialized in the Interpreter Journal in eight-to-nine parts, builds on his prolific portfolio of studies on the Book of Mormon by asking some very specific questions “about a very specific aspect of two different men.” Gardner poses his main question this way:

Nephi conceived writing Nephite history. Mormon conceived turning that history into a message to a future generation. Each wrote with purpose and elaborated that purpose by recounting stories. Knowing that each man used a chronology of events as the backbone structuring his intent, how did they select and then write the stories so Nephite history served their larger intent?

At first, I thought this might mean a “literary” approach, following what Grant Hardy has done. While there are literary aspects of this project, it resembles more a “source criticism” approach, trying to do for the Book of Mormon what source criticism has done for the Bible–identify the strands of thought and sources that make up each Biblical book. But of course, the comparison isn’t quite fair: unlike the authors and redactors of the Hebrew Bible, we know so much more about the Book of Mormon’s abridgment, because Nephi and Mormon both allude quite often to what they are doing. Both men leave explicit notes and implicit clues about how they built their book from their life experience and their life work. And both are very pointed about how they hope their work will be read.

The way Gardner approaches this is by dividing the book into two parts: first, he looks closely at the writers themselves. “What do we know about them? How did they learn to do what they did? What sources did they use, and what techniques did they employ to further their messages?” In the second part, he begins to interrogate the writers’ handiwork: “What drove the creation of specific chapters? What message was intended by the stories selected and the way they were told?”

Several things stuck out to me. Gardner is very attuned to detecting structure in the text: for every “and it came to pass,” “now,” and “behold,” he’s detected patterns that show how Nephi and Mormon use these terms in purposeful way. Additionally, I’ve always wondered about the original chapter breaks–which seem to have been designed by Nephi and Mormon. But they have never made sense. Gardner uncovers fascinating rules behind these, such as the “testificatory amen.” (Any “amen” exerts a nearly omniconsistent force in ending the old chapter and beginning a new one.) There are exceptions, and Gardner offers hypotheses for each.

He also notes–and I found this utterly fascinating–when Nephi and Mormon seem “triggered” by something. No, not in that way–what he means is that they’ll write something which will remind them of something else: something they promised to write earlier, or need to say now. So they’ll deviate into an aside or editorial, before returning to the planned episode or main narrative. There’s a detectable thrill in tracing the possible thought-lines of these two great authors, and trying to imagine them engraving each word and sentence.

There are so many other observations: repetetive resumption; sermons as chapter boundaries; the Mayan hotun, and its possible connection with Mormon’s calendrical system. There are new insights on every page. For me, the second half of the book–where Gardner walks through each original chapter division of the Book of Mormon–will be a constantly-consulted resource going forward. It is a fascinating, novel approach: I don’t think anyone has so systematically analyzed the subjective and objective experience of how Mormon and Nephi received their scribal training, drew from records and experience, made and engraved the plates, and set out to divide their records into chapters and episodes. It’s an incredible read. I can’t wait to revisit it.

(My one complaint: because the Interpreter Journal split this serialized book into five parts, and because Kindle titles are so long and almost exactly the same, and the specific chapters are at the very end of the title, I had SUCH a hard time finding the right book on my Kindle Paperwhite. Which was VERY frustrating. I look forward to seeing this as a single volume, though I’m not looking forward to having to re-annotate the entire thing–since my notes won’t transfer over. I’ll do it; it’s just annoying.)

[UPDATE: Brant Gardner assures me a single-volume edition is coming! I’m most looking forward to it.]

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