The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a classic as “having lasting significance or worth; enduring” or “a work recognized as definitive in its field.” Until the second half of the twentieth century, anyone interested in building a library of classic books from the past would expect to find them in expensive bookstores. Such books were usually bought by academics, book collectors, or wealthy individuals who could afford not only leather-bound books but also a library to house them.
In 1946, the owner of Penguin Books, Allen Lane, decided to release the first book in a new series, “Penguin Classics.” Translated by E. V. Rieu, the book was truly a classic, Homer’s Odyssey. The series produced modern translations of the classics in paperback editions, making them affordable and readable for a new generation of people. Over the years more than 1,300 titles have become part of the now world-famous series.
The most recent addition to the Penguin Classics series is The Book of Mormon (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), with an introduction by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, a well-known academic observer of Mormonism and associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Penguin Books chose to republish the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon because it “was the last of three revision undertaken by Joseph Smith Jr. . . . before his death in 1844” (vii). This reader-friendly edition replicates the 1840 edition, which had no verses, few chapter divisions, and none of the student helps in modern editions, such as footnotes and chapter summaries. As I began reading it today, I felt like one of the early Saints who read the book in full-page narrative style, which provided a different kind of experience.
Since 1830, the story of the book’s origins, the historical and cultural context of the narrative itself, and the book’s message have become part of a large and rather sophisticated discussion at all levels. Scholars–both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those of other faith traditions–have read it, studied, and written about it.
The BYU Religious Studies Center, established in 1975 by Jeffrey R. Holland, has been involved in that discussion, sponsoring conferences and publishing articles and books on the Book of Mormon that have helped many appreciate in new ways this “marvelous work and a wonder.” I hope you will join us in a journey of discovery as we continue to fulfill Elder Holland’s vision, which he recalled in 1986, “When the Religious Studies Center was established at Brigham Young University in 1975, it was intended to facilitate not only the University’s commitment to religious studies but was also to serve those same interests among the general membership of the Church.”