Remembering Hugh Nibley

It is perhaps a bit unorthodox to review a book before receiving and reading it, but this one is so exciting, I cannot resist. Not that the contents are unfamiliar. Substantial excerpts have been posted regularly by The Interpreter Foundation in their online journal, Interpreter, A Journal of Latter-Day Saint Faith and Scholarship (https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org) and for someone who was greatly influenced by Nibley, they are a delight. Paperback and Kindle versions are available now, but I am holding out for the hardbound, due out by June.

I first became aware of Professor Hugh Nibley as a high school student, a youth who loved history, mythology, and all things ancient. His articles in The Improvement Era magazine each month were eagerly anticipated. A few years later I was a freshman at Brigham Young University trying to decide whether to continue in Archaeology or switch to something else. Wandering around in an unfamiliar building, not quite in a fugue state, I looked up and saw that I was in front of Hugh Nibley’s office!

I knocked, he answered, and I went right in, asking about his work and advice concerning what I should study, as if he would know. Walls were lined with old books and desks were covered with ancient papyri he had been working on, work which I had interrupted. He was kind and patient, not particularly talkative, no doubt thinking about something Egyptian and wondering what this silly student was doing in his room and how to get rid of him. I don’t remember what was said, but after a short visit departed, thrilled by my brief contact with greatness.

We met two or three times more over the ensuing years, usually in the company of my late wife, who as a starving student had done housework for the Nibley family. She was very fond of them and they chatted of old times and about her great grandfather, inventor of the paperback book, a point of interest to the professor, who had read some of them during the twenties and thirties. We walked across campus together, two students and an aged teacher, he with his trademark rumpled hat, trench coat, and classic leather attaché case (a souvenir of World War II, captured from a fleeing Nazi officer when the youthful Sergeant Nibley was in army intelligence).  I did not say much on those occasions, hoping he did not remember me as the freshman who had barged into his office.

As for the book in question, Hugh Nibley Observed, it is filled with recollections such as these, only much better because they are from close friends, family, and colleagues, as well as a classic autobiographical sketch by the professor himself. There are reappraisals of his many scholarly contributions, of course, but the main focus is on his personality (delightfully witty and insightful), character (determined to do what is right, no matter what), and faith (humble and unswerving).

Professor Nibley was quite possibly the most intelligent man of our time, certainly one of the most—his IQ was estimated at something over 200, on a par with Aristotle. My scheduling was such that I never actually took a class from him for credit, but have watched or listened to recordings of his Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price courses dozens of times, as well as other talks, so I count myself as one of the thousands of students he influenced. His delivery was rapid and articulate, reciting from memory quotations in Hebrew or Greek or Latin or Arabic or any of a half dozen other languages. He usually, not always, provided translations. I also have read nearly everything he ever published, always well written, always informative and always interesting. His collected works fill two shelves in my office and related books much of a third. Now I eagerly await the arrival of this latest volume. The bookshelves will have to be rearranged.

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