A good friend recently got me thinking about Book of Mormon summaries. Most summaries of the Book of Mormon focus on what happens in the book, just like summaries of novels focus on the plot. But because the Book of Mormon isn't a novel, the "plot" is both a) hopelessly complicated and b) periodically abandoned for sections of the book where nothing really happens.
So how might a person usefully describe the shapes of the Nephites' books? I've given it a shot for the first four by coming up with alternate titles:
1 Nephi: The Book of the Visionary
1 Nephi is a book with plenty of events to describe. But if you describe them according to modern sensibilities, you'll probably focus on the journeys rather than on the visions.
But the book isn't a travelogue or a simple diary. It's structured according to the visions Lehi and Nephi receive--and especially on the aftermath of each vision. Again and again, the pattern is vision, action, obstacle, action, expanded vision. It's best to read the book not as a report on how Lehi's family got to the ocean, but rather as a sort of handbook on being a visionary. A systematic record of the joy, burdens, and techniques that come with following a revelatory God.
2 Nephi: The Book of Deathbed Blessings
Most plot summaries of the Book of Mormon are 50% made out of summarized events from 1st Nephi, usually followed by a sentence or two on the war cycles of Alma-Mormon and a sentence or two on the appearance of Jesus in 3rd Nephi. Even though it's longer than 1st Nephi, 2nd Nephi doesn't contribute much because very little happens: it's a book where four prophets (Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah) just talk.
That may explain why so many people struggle to get through 2nd Nephi--if you're reading for plot, it's pretty boring.
But if you look carefully, it seems clear to me that 2nd Nephi has just as clear a structure and purpose as 1st Nephi. After the book of visions, we have a book of blessings--the blessing of two dying patriarchs.
Most people recognize Lehi's blessings and warnings easily since they only take up a few chapters and are so clearly reminiscent of Genesis 49. But it may be harder to notice that from chapter 6 on, Nephi is probably dying. And so he gives the people a new prophet (ch. 6-11), an old prophet (ch. 12-24), and his own personal blessings and warnings to conclude the book.
Jacob: The Book of the Exile
There are far more tragic events in the Book of Mormon than the handful of incidents mentioned in Jacob, but not many sadder narrators. At the end of his book (7:26), Jacob talks directly about his feelings of exile and alienation, but indirect evidence of those feelings permeates the whole text. Jacob doesn't just write down whatever happens: his book is built around the tensions of emigration. There's evidence in the book of a significant generation gap between Jacob himself and his new-world-raised relatives, who have their own values and priorities. There's a large passage devoted to the allegory of the olive tree, which describes the quiet background relationship between Jacob's descendents and the land/people they came from. It's a book, in the end, about exile and the long (but confident) wait for redemption.
Enos: Prayer of the Native Son
Part of the structure of Enos is obvious to most readers: it's a book about a prayer. What may not be as obvious is that it's also the first book about someone who grew up in the Americas. If you look carefully at Enos, I think you'll see how that shift is also an important part of the book.