Young men and women about to serve LDS missions typically have two or three months between officially committing to serve an LDS mission ("submitting their papers") and actually entering their assigned Missionary Training Center. Here's a question for readers: What should a prospective LDS missionary soon to embark on a mission read during that two or three months to better prepare themselves? I expect a wide variety of responses for what you think such a "pre-missionary" should read. I'll give my two suggestions at the end of this post.
Despite the talk about sending out better prepared missionaries, I'm not sure most LDS youth really get much in terms of substantive preparation from the CES experience. That's surprising given the sheer amount of time LDS youth are subjected to classroom teaching, up to eight classes per week during four years of high school (five seminary classes, and three meetings on Sunday). But what can you expect from teenagers? They have a lot of things on their mind, and paying attention in a church class — much less reading LDS history or a good "Introduction to the New Testament" — is just not on their list. So I'm guessing that most pre-missionaries have read the Book of Mormon once and maybe parts of the New Testament and D&C, but that's about it.
Once they hit the mission field, many missionaries do get interested in reading more about LDS history and doctrine, and sometimes about other denominations or religions as well (to relate to those they are contacting and teaching, if nothing else). I mean, what else is there to do for leisure but read? I'll bet the relative isolation of missionary life is a real shocker for the cell-phone-and-chat-room generation. Anyway, missionary rules typically prohibit any reading by LDS missionaries besides LDS scriptures (including the Bible) and a very few LDS books such as The Articles of Faith and Jesus the Christ. So if there's anything off that short list that would do a missionary well, he or she should read it before going.
Okay, here are my two suggestions. First, Robert V. Remini's Joseph Smith (Viking, 2002). Most Mormons have not read a biography of Joseph Smith, but pre-missionaries really ought to. Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling is just too much for a first biography of Joseph Smith -- too much information and too many pages. But any pre-missionary can finish Remini's book in a week. It is short and very readable, with just the right amount of historical context. You can read the first five pages at Amazon. While not LDS, Remini adopted a tone that was respectful towards and even sympathetic to Joseph's visionary religious experiences.
Second, I would have a pre-missionary read The Story of the Latter-day Saints, the classic one-volume history of the Church by Allen and Leonard, two faithful LDS historians. The book was first published in 1976, but a revised and enlarged second edition was published in 1992. The first 200 pages review much of the same material covered in a biography of Joseph Smith, while the balance of the book covers everything since, right up through the present worldwide Church.
Any other suggestions?