Brigham Youngâ€™s condemnation of novel reading during the last two decades of his life is a perfect example of a much-studied moment in the history of reading, the hypothesized “reading revolution” of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the peculiar trajectory of Brigham Young’s attitude, from wary tolerance of novel reading to blanket combination of it, is unusual.
Another thing, I will say to the young ladies especially, that if I should live to have the dictation of a stake of Zion that would live according to the Order of Enoch, this nonsensical reading would cease. This “yellow-covered” literature would not come into the houses of the Saints….I hope that my children know as much about the Bible, Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants as they do about yellow covered books.
These few sentences written by Brigham Young in 1873 neatly summarize nearly every essential element of the change in reading during the nineteenth century, and concerns about it. The expansion of education had brought literacy to many new readers among women, children, and the working classes, which up to that point had been predominately illiterate groups. The anxiety over this change was focused on a particular medium, the small, cheaply-produced books such as those referred to by Brigham Young as “yellow-covered” literature. But the anxiety over the new reading environment in the nineteenth century was not just a matter of who was reading what, but how they were reading it. George Q. Cannon’s description from 1884 is as good as any of his contemporaries’:
They are only happy when they can take refuge, as a dram-drinker would to liquor, in novel reading. They bury themselves in their novels and allow their feelings to be wrought upon by the painful trials and woes of their heroes and heroines, who only exist in the imagination of their authors.
Addiction, absence, and excessive emotionality are common ways to describe the scene of the novel reader utterly lost to the world. A companion thesis to the “reading revolution” is the suggestion that the end of the eighteenth century saw a transition from “intensive” to “extensive” reading. According to this thesis, the dominant reading practice up to that time involved the repeated reading of one or a few texts (typically the Bible or a catechism) that were carefully and methodically digested, memorized, and reinforced by oral preaching and recitation and hymn singing. But in the nineteenth century, reading in the United States and Europe came to be dominated by the relatively superficial reading of many different texts one after another, and this kind of reading was a much more private and intimate affair.
And this, I think, points to a possible solution to the contradiction between Brigham Young’s tolerance and even enthusiasm for the theater, as long as its content was appropriate, at the same time he was condemning novels without regard to their contents. The problem of the novel for Brigham Young and many of his contemporaries, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, was not, I think, one of content, but one of media. Theater is oral, communal, and public, while novel reading is (by the nineteenth century) silent, individual, and private, and hence unfettered by any community norms of reception or response.
The differences between the media of the theater and the novel might also help explain Brigham Young’s turn against the novel. In 1853, Brigham Young wrote that his children “shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will…add fire to their spirits.” In 1862, on the way to roundly condemning novel reading, he at least conceded, “I would rather that persons read novels than read nothing.” In 1873, he took a harder line: “If I had the dictation of a society, all this would stop, you would have none of it.” In 1877, a week before he died, Brigham Young told a son to “avoid works of fiction; they engender mental carelessness and give a slipshod character to the workings of the mind.” What had changed during those two dozen years? The project of building Zion in the valley of the Great Salt Lake was well under way in 1853, but in 1862 and 1877, that Zion was under constant threat of annihilation from the outside. The importing of novels did not just seem to dilute the Saints’ economic strength, but the novel’s mode of use also appeared to weaken the community’s hold over the individual imagination and to offer wavering Saints the chance to flee Deseret into private imaginary worlds.
Soon after Brigham Young’s death, the novel and novelistic modes of reading were victorious in Utah and the United States and the rest of the western world; today, novel reading is considered to be a core cultural competency, and the type of reading against which other modes are judged. Mormon scripture study still preserves the reading practices of an early age, however; when we memorize and recite and underline scriptural verses, and comment for 20 minutes on a single verse in a sacrament meeting talk, we are re-enacting very old ways of accessing texts. But novel reading found its own place in Mormon culture, too. The promotion of Mormon Home Literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth century can be seen as an attempt to use the medium of the novel to create through private reading the internal, personal experience of a Zion that couldn’t, in the end, achieve physical existence and independence in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.
 As argued in Richard H. Cracroft, “‘Cows to Milk Instead of Novels to Read’: Brigham Young, Novel Reading, and Kingdom Building,â€ BYU Studies 40 (2001): 102-31.
 This, and all citations here, are as cited by Cracroft.
 The go-to articles on the reading revolution and nineteenth-century expansion of literacy are Roger Chartier, “Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?” and Reinhard Wittmann, “New Readers in the Nineteenth Century: Women, Children, Workers,” both in A History of Reading in the West, ed. by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, trans. by Lydia G Cochrane (Amherst: U Massachusetts Press, 1999).
 For France, Chartier has studied similarly colorful books knows as the bibliothÃ¨que bleue.
 For a comparable German reaction, see Die Lesesucht, a chapter from a devotional book for young readers printed in 1831.
 Cracroft notes this contradiction but I don’t think he resolves it. After he shows that Brigham Young’s objection to novel reading was not primarily about undesirable content, I’m skeptical of his suggestion that Brigham Young’s approval of the theater is explained by the fact that stage dramas could sometimes be uplifting.
 Thus I agree with Cracroft, although for somewhat different reasons than those he lays out, that it is in the end Brigham Youngâ€™s “all-consuming vision of the destiny of the kingdom of God” that led him to condemn novels.