My Adventure in the Blegen Library; or, What I Learned When I Risked Looking Like an Idiot to See a First Edition of the Book of Mormon

While the University of Cincinnati’s Blegen Library might not be the coolest-looking building on campus, the fact that it’s purported to be haunted ups its street cred in my book. Descend into the belly of the bibliophilic Hell that is the classics library and you’ll see what I mean. It is likely among the eeriest places on campus. Right out of the first scene in Ghostbusters. If there’s a disembodied spirit with unresolved issues on campus, it’s shacked up in the classics library.

Few people frequent the Blegen Library, so it’s a fairly quiet place. Still, because it lacks desk space, it’s not the best place to study on campus. I found this out the hard way when I grew tired of the only decent place to study in the building–the classics library—and so sought out a more excellent place to read.

I knew the rare books collection was on another floor, so I decided to check it out. I had heard rumors of its potential as a study place. Maybe it had the kind of study space I was looking for.

I was wrong. As soon as I stepped through the class door of the rare books collection I could see that the place was practically sitting in its own lap. The reception area was cluttered with bookshelves, cardboard boxes overflowing with leather-bound tomes, and wooden pushcarts piled high with mildewed notebooks and records from the late nineteenth century. Nearly lost in this mess was a reception desk, behind which sat an aloof undergraduate typing away at a laptop. He barely looked up.

Nice, I thought. The place was a custodian’s nightmare, but (I admit) a researcher’s low-tech dream of paradise.

It was my kind of place.

But I had miles to go before I could kick off my shoes and sleep, so I took what I hoped to look like a nonchalant drink from a lukewarm water fountain and turned to go.

“May I help you?”

I turned around to see another Blegen employee, an undergraduate in her sophomore or junior year. The look on her face—part irritation, part confusion, part panic—told me they didn’t get too many visitors there. It was similar to the “What the crap are you doing here?” look I used to get all the time as a missionary.

At this point, I could have been honest, admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing, and walked away. I could have even been completely honest and said that I was looking for a quiet place to study.

But I didn’t. Instead, I made something up. Off the top of my head. I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, “do you guys have a library catalog?”

“Not like a card catalog,” she said, using a tone that matched the look on her face. “We’ve got a computer. We haven’t had a paper catalog in a long time.”

“That’s fine,” I said, wondering if there was something about me that suggested I hadn’t been in a library since 1987, when card catalogs were still all the rage.

As she led me into the collection’s one computer, she explained that they usually only help those who make an appointment. I looked around. Aside from her and the guy at the reception desk, I could only see one other person, a silent researcher, and she looked like she lived there.

I’ll keep that in mind next time,” I said.

The computer was in a larger room partitioned off from the main room by a glass wall. “We’re all about high security here,” my guide explained. “You’ll need to leave your backpack outside.” As I set my backpack beside the reception desk and followed her through the glass door, I wondered if the glass wall was bulletproof. I had seen Angels & Demons, so I knew how things could get in an archive.

Of course, I had no real business being at the computer. I was supposed to be somewhere else, some quiet place, working on the two essays I had due at the end of the quarter. Worse, I wasn’t practicing effective time management. Stephen R. Covey would not be proud. So, behind that wall of potentially bullet-proof glass, I did what any well-trained graduate student would do: I looked up my paper topics.

“Emily Dickinson” turned up nothing interesting, but when I typed in “Mormon” (I was writing a paper on Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark), I discovered that the library had a first (1830) and third edition (1840) of the Book of Mormon.

Ten minutes later I was sitting at a table with the two Books of Mormon in front of me. The small 1840 edition was in bad condition. “You’ll have to be careful with this one,” the undergraduate said as she set the tattered book down. It was held together by a thin red ribbon. The other edition, the first edition, was in a box. Before setting it on the table, she opened it and showed me the book. “This one’s really beautiful,” she said, opening its thick black cover to show me the ornate endpaper.

I had seen pictures and replicas of the tan-colored first edition, and the book she held in front of me looked nothing like it.

Crap, I thought, it’s been rebound.

I took the book from her and fanned the dust-smelling pages pocked by decades-old water stains and mold spots. As I did so, my eyes I glimpsed names as familiar to me as the names of my own brothers and sisters: Jacob, Abinadi, Amulek, Helaman, Riplakish, Coriancumr, Moroni. I turned to the end of the book and scanned the last few pages for these words:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.

Maybe it was the glass wall. Maybe it was A. S. Byatt. But as I read this passage—possibly the most famous passage in the book—I started to wonder if there might be historically significant marginalia somewhere in the book–some six word revelation or observation penciled in by a well-known person from Church history. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Daily Universe headline: GRAD STUDENT FINDS LOST BOOK OF MORMON OF MARTIN HARRIS. CONTAINS PARTIAL MAP TO LOST 116 PAGES.

No such luck. All I got were molds spots and the satisfaction of holding a book pressed by E. B. Grandin himself.

The third edition was similarly void of news-making marginalia, although on the inside back cover someone had written out a list of the various editions of the Book of Mormon. The rest of the book was much like the first edition, except this copy was in worse condition. At some point, possibly decades ago, times and seasons of use had severed the cover from the spine. As I turned over each page, tiny flakes of brown paper broke off and fell like ash on the table.

I left the rare books collection a few minutes later. I had papers to write and other research to conduct, so I took the elevator to the main floor and found a desk in a quiet corner of the Classics library. Before long, I was wading chin-deep in the viscous prose of Emily Dickinson’s letters. My morning with the Book of Mormon had passed.

Later, though, as I made my way down the steep slope of Straight Street, where my car was parked, I thought about the two time-eaten volumes and how different they were from the Book of Mormon we now know. The old editions had no chapter headings, no verses, no cross references, no index. They looked more like average books of works of scripture. It occurred to me that reading them in such a way would be a very different experience. When I read the Book of Mormon, after all, I tend to treat each individual verse as something set apart from the rest of the chapter, something independent that contributes, nevertheless, to the bigger picture.

In many ways, I think this is true for most Mormons who read scripture: it’s a verse-by-verse process. When we mark a scripture, we tend to mark the whole thing—even when only a part of it moves us.

When the first Mormons read the Book of Mormon, though, they were forced to read the words on their own terms, with little editorial mediation, and nothing to mark one passage off as different from or more important than another. When Parley P. Pratt spent the day reading the Book of Mormon, there was no 1 Nephi 3:7 or Moroni 10:4-5. All he had were words.

By the time I fitted the key into the ignition of my car, I had committed to reading the Book of Mormon again—this time with a copy sans verses. I’ve read the Book of Mormon, after all, more than any other book on my shelf. But I’ve never really felt—oddly enough—that I was reading a book. For me, the Book of Mormon has always been something more. And I expect it will always be that way—even when I’m eighty, chewing on false teeth, and reading with a magnifying glass.

But, after handling those old editions, I want to experience the Book of Mormon as a book—the way I experience other books—because I believe it has something to offer as a book.

I don’t know if that’s possible, of course, but I want to find out. It would make looking like an idiot in the Blegen worth it.
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3 thoughts on “My Adventure in the Blegen Library; or, What I Learned When I Risked Looking Like an Idiot to See a First Edition of the Book of Mormon”

  1. Wm Morris said…
    Very cool. I miss hanging out on the lower floors of Berkeley's main library, especially the Romanian section (where no one ever came).

    Also: you may find Ben Crowder's reader's edition of the Book of Mormon useful.
    March 30, 2011 10:16 PM

  2. I'll check out the reader's edition. I remember hearing talks of it when I was attending BYU.

    Another one that has caught my interest is the Book of Mormon put out by Penguin Classics. From what I understand, it follows the formatting of the third edition.

  3. .

    I feel the same way though I haven't purchased a copy that would facilitate such a read.

    In 1999 or 2000 I read an article in the FARMS magazine about Maori saints and how they read the book for stories and narrative and not as a sequence of verses. I tried to replicate that by reading through as fast as I could. Good experience. When I get a Nook though I think I'll get Ben's version.

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