Everybody comments on the size of this volume; its weightiness, both physical and metaphorical, is inescapable. Other reviewers will do a more scholarly job of analyzing the contents. This is my idiosyncratic first impression of this beautiful book.
The left-hand side of every spread is a color photograph of a page from one of the two manuscript books used to record early revelations and commandments, with the right-hand side being a transcription of that manuscript page, line by line, each line of printed text breaking where the manuscript line breaks, insertions and overstrikes and erasures being marked on the text to mimic in type the handwritten page, as nearly as possible. The photographs are beautiful and clear, and I loved the detailed description in the forematter of how those photos were produced – the editors even tell us that the binding would not allow certain (identified) pages to lie flat, so archivists used small metal spatulas to hold the pages in place for photography (assuring us that no text was obscured in any case), then cloned color from the surrounding area to remove all visual trace of those spatulas.
This may be the first time that many readers have a chance to examine, even second hand, a primary manuscript from the 19th century. At some point, many will probably test themselves at trying to read a few lines of manuscript before looking at the printed “cheat sheet.” Depending on the chosen page, there will likely be some pride at how well the novice can read the unfamiliar handwriting, or – if the chosen page is one that is faded or particularly carelessly written – some marveling at the success of the volume editors in transcribing what seems an impossible mass of pale pen strokes.
I’ve transcribed tens of thousands of handwritten pages, although, I admit, in perhaps only two cases with anything remotely approaching the letter-by-letter care taken by the JSP editors, and never with the technological tools available to them. The revelations books are largely – not entirely – beautifully legible by the standards of some of the documents I’ve transcribed: in my first run-through, I didn’t notice any of the water-soaked, pencil-smeared, less-than-semi-literate handwriting and spelling of some of my documents. The writing is relatively dark, and relatively regular. Also, in many cases we know what to expect the manuscript to say, which can be a help to deciphering the text – although, as the JSP scholars have already demonstrated more than once, expectations can also be traps when they lead you to “see” something that isn’t really there.
My saying that “I’ve seen worse” is in no way intended to downplay the achievements of the editors of this volume. Quite the opposite. I’m only claiming enough experience to appreciate what they have done. And I’m only talking about completing the basic transcription – I have not the vaguest claim to understanding how they were able to determine the identity of the scribes who made minute alterations in the text, or some of their other stunning work.
Yet even someone who has not transcribed 19th century documents will likely be astonished when he compares the manuscript to the typescript. Even something as familiar as the sacrament prayers, which appear in fair copy in the revelation book (meaning they appear to have been copied by a scribe from a previous document – the scribe wasn’t taking down the words as they fell for the first time from the lips of Joseph Smith, in which case you’d expect lots of false starts and crossouts), involves some corrections and erasures and insertions. When you read manuscript for the content, your eye tends to glide right past those clerical stumbles – but not the JSP editors. Every mark, every tiny smear that indicates the erasure and rewriting of a single character, is duly noted on the transcription. This tends to make the transcription look even more complicated than the manuscript!
Any random page in this volume will illustrate a problem I’ve run across time after time after time when dealing with church members who don’t appreciate the raw materials of history: Good people are genuinely mystified by the multiplicity of books on a single event – how can there be so many different versions of what happened at Mountain Meadows? Why can’t all those authors just look up what happened and write it down? Why doesn’t everybody just tell the truth?
This volume illustrates how difficult it is even to establish the words that are right there on the page. When it requires the skill of so many experienced scholars, coupled with the tools of an advanced technology, just to get the words down right, how much more effort must it take to understand what those words are trying to record?
Echoing a salute once given by a grizzled Colorado miner to aging Civil War veterans aboard a passing train, I say, “Three cheers for the boys what did!” Congratulations, Messrs. Jensen, Woodford, and Harper.