I apologize in advance for the overly long and personal post. It’s probably more for me than for anyone else, but I’m happy to share if you’ll indulge me for just a moment.
Living in South Texas, there were no LDS bookstores within a thousand miles. But we traveled. A lot. And long before I came along, my dad had traveled–to Church history sites. As early as I can remember, we had a closet full of books, most of which, as a young child, looked so boring (that white softback Comprehensive History of the Church set exuded boredom). I came around, though. I discovered most of these books were Church books, gradually collected during our yearly family vacations. I learned to love that collection, and it provided a space for intellectual expansion that otherwise did not seem to exist (unless you counted blind speculation–and yes, plenty of that went on too!).
We were a little later than most of my friends in getting a computer and internet access. But when it came, it opened up a whole new world of interaction. The thousands of miles melted away, and suddenly I was connected with writings and chat groups at my fingertips. It was there, through the internet, that I became acquainted with the works of Hugh Nibley. I couldn’t get enough. I loved his wit, how he had an answer for everything, how fascinating I found his material. When I came to BYU after graduating from High School, my Nibley-love deepened. It was whispered that he lived close to campus. His masterwork, to be entitled, One Eternal Round, was also spoken of (speculated about) in hushed tones.
Being called to the Utah Provo Mission, I was assured continued access to Nibley. In Delta, Utah, we had a key to the stake library where we were welcome to make copies and borrow videos as the need required. That library had a nice collection of Improvement Eras, and I took volume after volume home to the missionary apartment and was elated to find multi-part, large-scale, classic Nibley articles there. In St. George, I picked up Nibley’s Myth Makers from the local DI. I went to my missi0n president to ask permission to read Nibley (you see, the Improvement Eras were official Church publications, so no permission needed .
“Have you passed all your certifications?” He asked.
“Have you done X?”
“Have you done Y?”
He thought for a moment. “Well, if’ you’ve done all that, then yes, I guess you can read Nibley.”
I had gone prepared. And I read Myth Makers in short order. I’d heard of his The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. In Provo, my last area, I checked it out from the library and devoured it. Someone told me about how much they liked Approaching Zion. In one of my rare free moments I randomly looked in the Phone book just if by some stretch of possibility Nibley was listed. I was shocked that he was! What luck! I mean, celebrities aren’t usually listed in the phone book, I thought. I made up my mind that I needed to go visit him. Surely he wouldn’t turn away a set of missionaries! The plan couldn’t fail.
I kept Nibley’s address carefully filed in my memory and I waited for the time to present itself and for my nerves to steel up. One evening our last planned appointment fell through and I felt that that was as good a time as any. We found parking close by and walked over. My companion, from Mexico, had never heard of Nibley and didn’t understand why I wanted to see him. I tried to explain, but it just didn’t work. I rang the bell with a shaky finger, my heart pounding. A dozen questions filled my head in rapid succession: “What would I say? What would I ask him? How could I express to him what I thought of his work? I can’t believe I’m at his door!” The door opened, and we were met with one of Nibley’s sons. He had us come in and said that Hugh was out at a birthday party, but would be arriving shortly. We sat in his living room with his son. I looked around, books and stacks of papers everywhere. He came in before long, walking with a cane (about February ’03) and sat down. We introduced ourselves and he immediately reached over to a stack of papers on the coffee table and began talking about the geometric properties of the 2nd Facsimile. He spoke with such enthusiasm, like he was telling us about a groundbreaking and recent discovery. I asked if this was new and his son chuckled and said, No, he’s been working on this for a while. He would have gone on and on, but after about a half hour, we had to get home for the evening. I thanked him and we departed. I was star struck. My companion was underwhelmed.
I went to Deseret Book on a preparation day not too long after and bought Approaching Zion. I got into it that night as bedtime preparations unfolded. I got 15 pages in and put it down. I couldn’t handle any more. I knew that night that I would never be the same again. I wrote in my journal, “Reading Approaching Zion by Hugh Nibley. It’s changed my life.” When my next companion came, I took him with me to see Nibley. This time I brought Approaching Zion. Nibley himself answered the door. “Oh, missionaries! Come in!” He ushered us into the living room. His wife came in and I began telling him how much I liked his book and fought the urge to just gush. He said that one of the things he loved to ask students was what they would do if they had unlimited funds and unlimited time. And how students always answered that they didn’t know what to do, that they’d be bored. I had the book in my hands and as I talked, he motioned for it with his hand and with the other hand made signing motions in the air. He was way ahead of me. I handed him the book and a pen. He noted out loud that it was 3/3/03, and that it wouldn’t happen again for a thousand years. He signed the book. After a little more discussion we took our leave. I was walking on air. The inscription read:
N.B! -> 3/3/03!
Come back in 1000 years for No. 4!
Wishing a bright Millennial day for you.
(still on approach!)
With my last companion I went by one last time before leaving the mission. It was just a few months later, but by that time, when we entered, Nibley was in a hospital bed in the front room. He was sitting up, watching the history channel. I saw that family was there, and they seemed a little uncomfortable with our visit, so I said hello and asked if we could say a brief prayer with them before we left. That was the last time I saw Brother Nibley. I continued to read Nibley’s writings and they had convinced me to turn away from political science and law and to history. When I returned to BYU, I enrolled in Hebrew classes and, hearing that the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major would be revived soon, I began to prepare for it. The summer of 2004 found me neck deep in Latin classes and I passed many hours in the Nibley reading room on the fifth floor of the Harold B. Lee Library. In a spare moment I would walk around and contemplate Nibley’s portrait or the sarcophagus there. The following winter, February 25, 2005, I arrived on campus and as I got to a computer and saw BYU’s home page, I was met with the news that Hugh Nibley had passed away the day before. I was crushed. I knew that he had been ill. It wasn’t surprising. But…Hugh Nibley was too big to die. “It can’t be.” I thought to myself over and over. It was then that I had a very special experience that deeply impacted me, comforted me, and taught me the greatest lesson I ever did and have learned about Brother Nibley. My sorrow that morning turned to rejoicing.
I cherish the memory of those brief moments when I, as a missionary, had the opportunity to meet and converse with Hugh Nibley. Hugh has had his critics, and my own scholastic journey has taken me, methodologically, in a different direction than that which Hugh often epitomized. In my intellectual and scholarly journey thus far, I owe a lot to a lot of people. Probably as much if not more than anyone, to Hugh Nibley for setting me on a course that has taken me to where I am today. And so, brother Nibley, on your 100th birthday, I thank you. But more than for inspiring me to a life of academia, thank you for your reminder to me, which echoes off the page every time I contemplate the inscription you left, that as disciples of Christ, we are all still on approach.