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‘Consecrated Life’ chronicles 9 decades of marvelous wit

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HUGH NIBLEY: A CONSECRATED LIFE, by Boyd Jay Petersen, Greg Kofford Books, 446 pages, $32.95.

As the Irish would say, Hugh Nibley is a "one-off," meaning one-of-a-kind or "first draft."

In Mormon country he has long been recognized as a legend, and Hugh Nibley stories circulate in a way similar to J. Golden Kimball stories. Those stories usually have something to do with his famous eccentricities as a scholar, teacher, curmudgeon and social (gadfly) critic, environmentalist and Democrat.

All are funny — and some are true, as chronicled in "Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life," by Boyd Jay Petersen.

Nibley, now 92, was a grandson of Charles Nibley, who served as presiding bishop of the LDS Church and as a counselor in the First Presidency. His father, Alexander, was an obsessive businessman who unwittingly taught Hugh by his example that the life of a businessman was not for him.

In fact, from a very young age, Nibley eschewed wealth, position or status of any kind — and he also demonstrated no definable desire to become a church leader. But his father did influence him in another way — he read the entire works of Mark Twain aloud to his children. Later, in turn, Hugh Nibley read the works of Homer to his children.

Nibley was determined very early to devote himself to a life of the mind. He became a dedicated scholar, doing undergraduate work at UCLA and obtaining a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, then teaching at Claremont College in Claremont, Calif., and Brigham Young University in Provo. During his long life he has produced voluminous writings.

Over the years he has had many opportunities to teach at prestigious universities but has turned down all offers.

Nibley concentrated most of his research on the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham and the history of temples. He also became proficient in many languages, which aided much of his research. During this process, he became the recognized expert on practically any topic concerning the LDS Church. While a professor at BYU, he completed numerous papers at the request of the LDS First Presidency, and he gave numerous lectures inside and outside Utah, mostly in academic settings.

Respected LDS historian Leonard Arrington said the three leading Mormon intellectuals of the late 20th century were Sterling McMurrin, Lowell Bennion and Hugh Nibley.

Nibley became famous for his huge vocabulary and his unrelenting wit. At the same time, he opted to live the simple life, never caring for luxury or money. He regularly wore rumpled clothing and drove old cars. Even in his youth, his genius and interest in ideas kept him from eating foods that would fatten him up. In fact, he had little time to eat.

As a 17-year-old LDS missionary in Germany in the late 1920s, he subsisted mostly on wheat he stashed in his pockets. Later, he survived his first year as a college professor by eating oranges. Eccentricity began early in life, as exemplified by brother Reid's memory of him reading a book propped on the steering wheel while driving to and from UCLA. "We'd go through stop signs or whatever and I guess the guardian angels were watching us because we never cracked up."

For his entire career, Nibley was highly respected by students, colleagues and the public who wrote him numerous letters. And he was vilified by those who hated his social criticism. He criticized American governmental decisions regarding war and the environment. He criticized Mormons for "our willingness to sacrifice ethics for wealth, knowledge for training, culture for kitsch and management for leadership."

Nibley was also a consistent critic of higher education and its administration, including that of his own employer, BYU. He always did it with style, wit and intellectual polish. He always provided persuasive evidence. It didn't take long for Nibley to reach a point in his life and career at which he felt comfortable speaking his mind.

Although the author is Nibley's son-in-law, he has written a highly literate, fully researched and balanced biography that both Nibley critics and admirers will enjoy. Writing a biography of a living person is one of the greater challenges any scholar confronts, but Petersen has used both documents and his living subject to provide powerful evidence and narrative strength.

This careful biography is likely to stand the test of time.

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com