Friday, February 29, 2008

MIA reading list 1958, part one

There used to be a recommended reading list for the youth for each year, printed in the Improvement Era. I believe this was in the same era of the Relief Society's Out of the Best Books series of literary anthologies.

I have here the list from 1958-1959 (
Improvement Era June 1958, just in time for summer reading), complete with an order form to mail to Deseret Books if you wanted to purchase the books from them (the most expensive of them was $4). It's an interesting window onto that year, and onto what Church leaders hoped their youth would be reading.

I'll post it in several parts
so I can add comments, since there are 27 books (maybe the most notable thing right off the bat is that the list had 27 books on it!). I also should say that although I consider myself (modestly) well-read, I've only read two of them.

1) The Life of the Bee, Maurice Maeterlinck, $3.00

(first published 1901, so a classic in 1958 - only 35 cents for paperback, and now is only $3.59 for the Amazon Kindle. Oh. You have to have a Kindle. It's okay, you can still get a used
book for under $5). Maeterlinck was Belgian, a poet, writer, and dramatist w
ho lived a racy personal life, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1911. He fled from the Nazi invasion in the 1930s and went to Hollywood, where he wrote a screenplay for MGM based on The Life of the Bee. Reportedly Sam Goldwyn began reading the screenplay, and burst out of his office shouting, "My G*d! The hero is a bee!" (this was long before Seinfeld got his hands on the concept). In the speech awarding his Nobel prize, the committee praised his surreality:

"Maeterlinck wrote a whole series of dramatic compositions. Most unfold in eras that we could not determine and in places not to be found on any map. The scene is usually a fairy castle with underground passages, a park with lovely shady places, or a lighthouse with the sea in the distance. In these melancholy regions figures often move veiled like the idea itself. In several of his most perfect scenic works, Maurice Maeterlinck is a symbolist and an agnostic... Like Spinoza and Hegel, who were great thinkers though not deists, Maeterlinck is a very great poet although his conception of things and of life is not that of a deist. He does
not deny anything: he simply finds the principle of existence hidden in the shadows."

Which, to me, totally begs the question of whether anyone designated "agnostic" and "not deist" would get within a thousand miles of a reading list for our LDS youth today. That's one of the things that impressed me about this list, is the risks it takes, and the breadth it offers. Anyway, back to Count Maeterlinck...

The Life of the Bee, the committee had this to say:

"In 1900 La Vie des abeilles
[The Life of the Bee] appeared. This book had strong repercussions. Although Maurice Maeterlinck is an enthusiastic beekeeper and thoroughly familiar with the life of the bees, he did not intend to write a scientific treatise. His book is not an abstract of natural history but an exuberantly poetic work abounding in reflections, the sum total of which is almost a declaration of incompetence. It is useless, the author seems to say, to inquire if the strange cooperation among the bees, their apportionment of work, and their social life are the product of a reasoning mind. It matters little whether the term "instinct" or the term "intelligence" is used, for they are but ways of revealing our ignorance in the matter. What we call instinct among the bees is perhaps of a cosmic nature, the emanation of a universal soul. One immediately thinks of Virgil's immortal description of the bees in which he says that a thinker attributes to them a share of divina mens, the divine thought, the divine spirit."

2) Florence Ni
ghtingale, Jeannette C. Nolan (first published 1946), $2.95.

I can't find out much about this particular biography of Nightingale, except that I did learn Ms. Nolan was a frequent contributor to the biography series "Reading Well Signature Books for Children" aimed at young people - for them she also wrote biographies of Joan of Arc, Ulysses S. Grant, and Martha Washington, for example. My local library system has it, so maybe I'll get it through interlibrary loan and read it myself.

In her 2003 article, "Great Adventures in Nursing: Colonial Discourse and Health Care Delivery in Canada's North", Helen Gilbert characterizes Nolan's biography of Nightingale as one of several early twentieth-century works for the youth market which explored "th
e appeal of the Nightingale legend [and] its ability to combine high adventure, womanly virtue, self-sacrifice, physical endurance, and patriotism, all played out in a hostile foreign environment" and she notes "the mythopoeic force of this hagiographic tradition."

3) Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (first published 1869), $1.75.

This is one that I'm sure you know well, so I won't make additional commentary - it's a classic which is still widely read and beloved. University of
Virginia has made a great website to aid in critical study of this important American novel, by the way.

4) The Lees of Arlington, Marguerite Vance (1948), $2.75.

Vance's book is a biography of Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary, and is easily available from used booksellers at dirt-cheap prices. Can't find out much about it; it appears in a list of recently-published children's books in the December 1949 issue of H
arper's Magazine, and one library in my local system still has it on the shelf. I'm going to be keeping the interlibrary loan lady busy for a while.

5) Teacher: Helen Keller, Ann[e] Sullivan Macy (?), $3.50.

Ann (or Anne) Sullivan Macy is best known as the teacher for the remarkable Helen Keller. She was born in 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, and was placed in a Tewksbury almshouse. Later she attended Perkins Institution for the Blind, since her eyes had been seriously weakened by a childhood infection. Although a series of operations partially restored her sight, she learned the manual alphabet in order to talk with a fellow resident at Perkins. She was graduated in 1886 and one year later was chosen to teach Helen Keller. The two remained constant companions until Ann Sullivan's death in 1935 (by which time she herself was completely blind). In 1905 she married John Macy, who later became a noted writer and literary critic. During the early 1920s, Anne Macy and her former student helped to publicize the new American Foundation for the Blind (founded 1921) and lobbied for its program of increased opportunities for the sightless (source: Columbia Encyclopedia online).

Helen wrote a book about Anne, titled Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy (Doubleday, 1955). I actually can't confirm that Anne wrote one with such a similar title about her student, so I'm wondering if it's Keller's book that is meant to be on this list, and there's just a typo in the ad listing Macy as the author. Here's an online museum of Anne Sullivan Macy.

6) Tamar, Lois Malvern (1952?), $3.00.

A biography of the raped daughter-in-law of Judah, on the MIA reading list? What?? I can't find this book title connected with this author, even on W
orldCat, so I am guessing this is another typo, and the book which is meant to be on the list is Tamar, written by Gladys Malvern and published by Longmans, Green. Its genre is juvenile fiction; her sister (?) Corinne did the illustrations, and that's all I know, but I've already put my ILL request in on this one because I'm so curious about it.

7) An Adventure in Faith, S. Dilworth Young (1956), $1.75, Vol 1 in the Youth Classic Series.

Born in 1897, Seymour Dilworth Young was the great-grandson of Brigham Young. He was a long-time Seventy, General Authority Emeritus, a president of the New England mission 1949-1951, and a prolific Mormon writer. Besides Adventure in Faith, he also wrote Young Brigham Young and a biography of Young, More Precious Than Rubies, and numerous poems which appeared in LDS periodicals. While serving as director of the Los Angeles temple visitor's center, he installed a monument to women based on the Relief Society sculpture garden in Nauvoo. A copy for sale on eBay advertises the content (or maybe quotes the dust jacket?) thusly:

"What red-blooded young man wouldn't want to follow Jed Colby from London, England, shanghaied aboard the brig Wellington, as he traveled the plowing seas, suffered a shipwreck, and journeyed on an exciting trek across half of the continental United States? A rare combination, this book is all that the title implies. Adventure is the keynote from the he moment Jed is carried unconscious aboard the brig until he reaches California with the Mormon Battalion. Faith comes to Jed gradually
as he observes the gospel working in the lives of the members of the Battalion. This book will provide constructive lessons at the same time that it affords fascinating reading."

8) A History of the Prophet Joseph Smith for Young People, George Q. Cannon (ca. 1900), $1.75.

George Q. Cannon (1827-1901) was a counselor to presidents of the Church Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow. One of my favorite photographs of him (actually one of my favorite all-time LDS photographs) is of him and other Church leaders in prison stripes while serving time for polygamy in the territorial penn in 1888. I think I have an ancestor in this photo too.

But I digress. Davis Bitton comments on Cannon's view of LDS history here, and he notes that Cannon first published this book in 1900 and then it was re-issued over the years under slightly different titles. Bitton argues that it was almost the LDS version of Parson Weem's Life of George Washington - 19th century moral didactism at its finest.

9) Jacob Hamblin Among the Indians, James A. Little (1881), $0.25.

Twenty-five cents? Although surely not as substantive as
Paul Bailey's book from about the same era (1948) titled Jacob Hamblin, Buckskin Apostle, the booklet listed here is likely a republication of Hamblin's autobiography, which was dictated to Little and published in the 1880s. See also Juanita Brook's Jacob Hamblin, Mormon Apostle to the Indians (Westwater Press, 1980) for more about this unique character. If I'm not mistaken, excerpts from the Little/Hamblin text are posted online here.

10) Brigham Young, Olive [Woolley] Burt (1956), $2.95.

Folklorist and journalist Olive Woolley Burt, editor of the Deseret News Sunday magazine, did post-graduate work at the University of Chicago and Columbia University. She taught school in Utah and Wyoming and wrote prolifically. A short bio of her notes that "with the exception of 1904, she sold something for publication every year from the time she was eight until the year 1971." You go, girl!! In 1958, she had just published the luridly titled American Murder Ballads and Their Stories with Oxford University Press. Strangely, that one doesn't appear on the MIA reading list.

11) The Bound Girl, Nan [Watson] Denker (Ariel Books, 1957), $2.75.

Now here's where if you actually bought some of the books from Deseret in 1958, you just hit the "Antiques Roadshow" jackpot. Nan Denker's beautifully illustrated, and now quite rare, novel cannot be had for under $40, and a good edition will run you closer to a hundred dollars (!). But it's still around in libraries, so you can enjoy this novel about an indentured servant bound while on board ship from France to New Amsterdam, who ends up marrying one of the sons of the family to which she is indentured. (How convenient). One synopsis of the text says, "Learns to spin flax, has trouble with alderman, and ends up with one of the sons."

12) Twelve Around the World, Maureen Daly (1957), $3.50.

Maureen Daly (1921-2006) was an Irish-born journalist and writer most famous for Seventeenth Summer, begun when she herself was seventeen and published in
1938. A coming-of-age tale about a blossoming romance between two Wisconsin teenagers, the book was credited with founding the “Young Adult Literature” category as a separate genre of writing, and it has never gone out of print (although some modern readers might find it hasn't aged as well as they'd like). Twelve Around the World was one of her nonfiction books, and depicts the life of twelve teenagers from different nations. Alberta Eiseman, reviewing it for a New York newspaper, wrote:

"The subtitle of ["Twelve Around the World"], "True Accounts of the Lives and Countries of a Dozen Teenagers," is a better indication of the contents than the title itself. The author makes no attempt at covering the world: Western Europe is predominant, and whole continents are left out entirely. However, the "dozen teen-agers" she describes, and the countries in which they live, provide the subject-matter of fascinating and totally varied vignettes….

Sometimes Miss Daly tries to accomplish too much. It's hard to bring a person to life and describe a country, too, in twenty or thirty pages, and her asides are frequently confusing. The last chapter seems tacked on as an afterthought. Still, this is a fast-paced, interesting book, blessedly free of the preconceptions and chauvinism so often encountered in stories about other peoples."

13) The Wonderful Time, J[ames] L. Summers (Phil, Westminster Press, 1957), $2.75.

This book is mentioned in Barbara Martinec's 1971 article "Popular--But Not Just Part of the Crowd: Implications of Formula Fiction for Teenagers" in English Journal 60(3): 339-344. Martinec notes that whereas earlier formula fiction dealt with "personal" problems (shyness, say, or jealousy), fiction of the 1950s was more likely to explore how the protagonist dealt with social issues or problems beyond their immediate control. The Wonderful Time deals with the adjustment of a boy returning to high school after his discharge from the army. An army veteran in high school? This one, too, I'll have to track down on interlibrary loan, I'm intrigued.


  1. So Interesting! When I was in YW I read like a demon and was always asking for book recommendations. Sadly no one ever mentioned this list.

    Any ideas on good books to recommend to YW today?

  2. I know, it's facinating. I just happened to stumble on it while doing research for something else entirely, but anyone with access to the old Improvement Era (when will the Church do us all a favor and digitize that periodical?) could probably find the lists from other years. I'd be interested in seeing how the list might have evolved, and when it disappeared.

  3. I believe Tamar is historical fiction set during the first century A.D. She is the daughter of the NT Jairus.

  4. ooo, even cooler. Thanks, Justin. Have you read it?

  5. Just a note- the Out of the Best Books anthologies were published between 1964 and 1969. I have 5 volumes and treasure them greatly. The first volume was studied for 2 years and the others for a year each. They were arranged by subject matter and brought about many interesting discussions in the RS classes, which were held weekday mornings.

  6. Kate: this is a really great book for YW today!

  7. I've flipped through a copy, Jean. I haven't read it. Amazon carries a brief summary here.


  8. pedslp, I couldn't make that link work. What was the title? I'm thinking of compiling a list myself for a future post and would love the suggestion.

  9. Pedslp's book is Valiant Young Women by Bryce Gibby - looks pretty good!

  10. Thanks for the link to my blog ( and I hope you like it. My wife serves in YW and my calling allows me to spend a lot of time with the YW as well. In fact, we just had New Beginnings tonight. Enjoyed your blog.


  11. Years too late to be of use, but Tamar is now back in print, and available at


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