Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Review (Somewhat): Some Family

I've posted a couple of "thoughts" that I found provocative from a book called Some Family--The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself. Usually, one waits until one has finished reading a book before reviewing it. But because of the nature of this book, I think it appropriate to say something about it even though I'm just half way through it.

The author, Donald Harman Akenson, is a highly regarded historian, who has written extensively about the history of Judaism and Christianity. He is said to be the world's foremost authority on the Irish diaspora. In Some Family, he seeks to examine various systems of "genealogical narratives" throughout history and across cultures. His thesis seems to be that presently the system of genealogical recordkeeping selected by the LDS Church is becoming dominant. That's not such a surprising conclusion, but Akenson seems to warn against any one system dominating genealogy because any One Great Big System (as he would say) would fail to take into account the culturally-driven systems that otherwise exist. Akenson says that systems employed by genealogists must be consistent with "empirical, historical, and statistical reality."

Despite the apparent gravity of the subject, Akenson's writing is lively and the book is an easy read (with one exception that I'll get to momentarily). He clearly likes genealogy and genealogists and claims to like Mormons. The notes on the jacket cover says that Akenson "with trademark good humour and grace, provides an insightful study of the Mormon scriptures and their implications for genealogical work."

I'm not certain that devout LDS members would appreciate Akenson's "trademark good humour" or agree that "grace" is a hallmark of this particular work. He uses the LDS scriptures as the entry point to assess the Mormons' effort to "provide a single narrative on how humanity keeps track of itself" in the face of his central argument that there are at least four basic genealogical forms.

Akenson approaches the examination of the scriptures from the point of view of a disinterested observer. This is a touchy issue. It is the proper approach from an academic perspective, but believers may be offended. I have resolved similar issues concerning my own particular religion by understanding that there is a difference between what an outside examiner sees and what one sees through the eyes of faith. Faith is not subject to the logical dissection of the academic. In this sense, the faithful need worry only where the observer has missed or misconstrued some empirical fact.

Having said that, my reference to particular "thoughts" in the book is not an endorsement of any or all of them. Rather, I put them out for the sake of discussion.

I said earlier that Akenson's writing was lively and easy to read with one exception. That exception is his choice of vocabulary, which will send the average college-educated reader to the dictionary at least once a chapter. Check these out:


I'll have a complete review coming soon.


Janice said...


At least Akenson didn't make up words (as Lewis Carroll) did :D


Lee said...

You've got my attention. I look forward to the "complete" review.

Craig Manson said...

I've decided that I need to read it again and annotate parts before I review it. In progress and coming in about a month.