As faithful Mormons plod dutifully through 2 Nephi this month in Sunday School (including a huge chunk of Isaiah quoted as 2 Nephi 11-25), let's take a different tack and briefly consider how one approaches the Book of Mormon as literature. FARMS lists several of its articles
on the topic. I enjoyed a short piece
by Sidney B. Sperry, from his Our Book of Mormon
(Bookcraft, 1950). I like Sperry -- he was a gifted scholar who wrote clear expositions for general readers as well as scholars, but who did not exaggerate his claims or hype his jargon to hide the shortcomings of his argument. (Where have all the Sperries gone?)
Sperry says great literature must have a great theme and be expressed beautifully. He also notes that the greater the scope of any literature—that is, the greater the number, variety, color, and complexity of the impulses it arouses in man—the better its quality. Okay, the Book of Mormon does tackle great themes and tries to generate some variety, but it employs a limited vocabulary and rarely invokes a beautiful expression that isn't borrowed from the Bible. Refreshingly, Sperry concedes this last point, but explains the book's awkward prose by reference to its status as "a translation literature" and Joseph's limitations as a translator. He concludes that though the Book of Mormon has little sustained literary beauty, it is a great literature because of the unusual religious and historical truths which it sets forth with profound spiritual fervor.
Personally, I'd make an argument (following Bloom) that great literature is built around great characters, intriguing and complex personalities that defy any simple reading. Homer, for example, offers Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, and Odysseus. Shakespeare offers Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, and King Lear. I don't find any of the characters in the Book of Mormon to be intriguing or complex: they are either good guys or bad guys, and that label is generally all you need to know to understand them. Laban, Laman, and Lemuel were bad guys, while Nephi, Jacob, Sam, and Joseph were good guys. Oh, and Nephi killed a man in cold blood, but he seemed strangely unaffected by that event. Well, I'm no literary critic; you can make your own judgment on the quality and depth of the book's characters.
Also online is a short but detailed Encyclopedia of Mormonism article "The Book of Mormon as Literature," by Rust and Parry (at All About Mormons -- click here, then scroll down to "Scriptural Writings," then Book of Mormon, then scroll down to "Book of Mormon Literature" (sic)). While noting the book's small working vocabulary of about 2,225 root words in English, the authors claim it exhibits a wide variety of literary forms, including intricate Hebraic poetry, memorable narratives, rhetorically effective sermons, diverse letters, allegory, figurative language, imagery, symbolic types, and wisdom literature. The article mentions chiasmus, but for once doesn't dwell on it. There's even a joke! The Book of Mormon no longer fits Mark Twain's definition of a classic essentially as a book everyone talks about but no one reads. The authors did not cite Twain's more direct comments on the Book of Mormon. Rust and Parry conclude that it is a spiritually and literarily powerful book that is direct yet complex, simple yet profound.