Books, My Father's Treasure
Everyone who knew R. J. Rushdoony knows that he treasured books. He began his voracious reading very young. The only childhood naughtiness he ever related with proud pleasure was his attempts to read after bedtime by cracking his bedroom door to allow a sliver of light to fall on his book. My siblings and I soon learned that tearing or scribbling in a book, even our own children's books, would get a memorable rise out of Dad.
My father began collecting his treasure of books early in life. He began in earnest during his college and seminary days when he could pick up used books for five or ten cents. During those Depression and war years, he would eat as inexpensively as possible or skip meals entirely in order to have money for books. What he could not buy, he spent hours reading at the library. By the time he was in his forties, my early memories were of books filling his study, as well as a spare bedroom, half the dining room, and a storeroom. When we moved into a large older home and he began doing research for a private foundation, the books began to extend throughout the house and also fill a garage. The floors began to sag from the weight. Books arrived in the mail daily and did so for years to come. He frequently came home from used bookstores and library sales with boxes of books. When we moved to Los Angeles to start Chalcedon in 1965, Dad was forty-nine. We had to enclose a large screened-in patio to house the books. Still, they took up much of the rest of the house and the garage. A larger house, with yet another addition in 1972, provided yet more room for books, though not enough by any means. Again, the garage was full of boxes of books. When my father moved to Vallecito, California in 1975, he had a 1300 square-foot, nearly windowless library building constructed. A friend built shelves along the perimeter walls and bookshelves filled the rest. For a time, Mother had a normal household. It was not to last. When the library filled, the overflow came into the house. Shelves filled any empty floor space and the piles started accumulating in the living room. Dad was still accumulating books after his eyesight made reading nearly impossible. By his death last year, he had some 40,000 volumes.
My father did not just collect books; he read them. When he pastored a church on the remote Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada, the Indians would watch him open a package containing a new book at the mailbox and start to read it as he walked to his house, never looking up. As a child I recall his early habit, which he continued for many years, of carrying a book with him at all times. If he had to wait anywhere for even a few moments he would open the book and continue his reading where he had last stopped. He took a briefcase full of books on speaking trips and would come home with several read and indexed. Like many people, he read many good books. But part of his remarkable knowledge came from his reading many very bad books. This was an amazing thing, and required a discerning mind. He usually knew more about the ideas of other men than their advocates did. Without his extensive understanding of a wide range of individuals and subjects many conservative Christians would not even consider reading, much of his writing would not have been possible. Some books he skimmed very quickly to get the gist of their line of thought; some he read more carefully. Either way he was a very fast reader. Though he had developed his own technique which he couldn't really explain, he would definitely be considered a speed reader. He frequently read a book in a day; reading more did not tax him.
Dad's use of books changed somewhat over the years. Their value to him was as an asset to his work, not merely a financial asset. Though it decreases the value of the book, he never hesitated to neatly write in or mark his books. They were primarily utilitarian assets, tools, and not financial assets; besides, he never considered selling even one of them.
Because they were assets to his work, and he intended for them to last a long time, he preferred hardbacks to paperbacks. When it came to books, the cheap and disposable nature of a paperback was distasteful to him. It was difficult to get him to allow us to produce Chalcedon or Ross House Books in paperback editions. And, though he liked hardbacks, dust jackets were irrelevant to him. Though most people do, in reality, "judge a book by its cover," Dad never did. Books were treasures waiting to be opened to him. He would open and skim a book or read a portion of it and judge its value.
Most books are not worthy of being thoroughly studied and digested. Most are of value as sources of information; they are sources of references or tidbits of information or an occasionally perceptive insight. Accessing such information months or years later is thus important. My father used different methods early on. He used to write extensive notes on his reading. By the time I was in college in the 1970s, colored highlighters were very popular for noting important information. My father never liked them; they compromised the aesthetics of a book too much. By then he had long since developed his own method of, in effect, indexing his reading. When he read a book, he would use a six-inch ruler and a pencil. He would neatly underline, using the ruler (never freehand), an important piece of information. Sometimes he would double-underline something of particular importance. Longer passages he would mark with a single (or double) line in the margin parallel to the edge of the page. An exclamation mark, or an "x" in the margin would denote a particularly significant passage or statement. He then would write a reference to the marked passage in the back of the book. These would generally be very brief descriptions of what he wanted to have available for future reference. Entries would appear something like the following:
26ff, John Adams on Thomas Paine
52, Darwin and Freud
103-105, inflation as a tool of revolution
My father had a tremendous memory. He could usually find the book he needed and find the exact quote or reference based on his personal index very quickly.
Perhaps you have had the experience of highlighting a book and fallen into the trap of highlighting what would be a summary of the content. This would require a great deal of marking and assumes you will re-read all the highlighted portions in order to recall the content. My father's notations at the end of the book (which could not be done with a highlighter) were not for the purpose of summarizing, but for locating specific content for future reference. For reference, he usually noted the date(s) he read the book and the location.
My father could remember books and authors he had read sixty years previously. His indexing method made it possible for him to easily find, quote, and document the references he needed. Occasionally he would pay us to find a book because he needed a quote from it ("It's a green book about an inch thick with gold lettering. The title is History and Fate of Sacrilege.") He was, as I recall, more generous with praise than with payment if we were successful.
My father had a tremendous mind and a phenomenal memory. But his mind was not photographic. His books were a necessary part of his ministry and work. Their acquisition and housing required financial commitment and sacrifice. It also required a longsuffering wife. Mother never liked the library's sprawl, but she accepted its necessity. She only drew the line at the bedroom (other than his closet and nightstand, Dad complied no bookshelves).
My father bemoaned intelligent ministers who stopped learning after college and seminary. He urged them to dedicate time every week to their own self-education. Books are necessary to such an education. My father's great mind was a God-given blessing. Its development required books and discipline.
Though my father has now gone to his reward, the books remain in his library. I have, with much effort, re-shelved them to accommodate (barely) all the books from his house. My hope is that they will be in a first-rate Chalcedon library someday, available for many Christian scholars for years to come. They were, after all, my father's earthly treasure.
Topics: R. J. Rushdoony, Biography