Lesson from Dad

Did your father have a favorite book? Do you have a favorite book which reminds you of your father? What books do you think about on Father’s Day?

Those who knew my father may expect my Father’s Day book to be the collected works of William Shakespeare. My father could recite a substantial portion of it from memory. Nevertheless, without taking anything away from the Bard, I would select Lionel Ruby and Robert E. Yarber’s The Art of Making Sense. Throughout my childhood, my father kept this book on his shelf, and when I got to be around thirteen or fourteen, he suggested I borrow it. I could tell he really wanted me to.

Ruby and Yarber’s book sets out the principles of logical argument. It is a humorous book, and not only does it teach one how to express oneself sensibly, it empowers one to demand sensible explanations from others. An early chapter presents Rene Descartes’ claim that all knowledge, even calculus, quantum physics and anime fandom, consists of compilations of simple propositions. If one accepts Descartes’ claim, and The Art of Making Sense explains it persuasively, it is reasonable to ask authorities of all kinds to explain themselves simply.

Later chapters explain common logical fallacies. I was gratified, in my early teens, to have someone verify that an analogy is not a substitute for an argument. It was also liberating to learn, once and for all, that shifting from one definition of a word to another in the course of a conversation proves nothing about the original topic. A rose by any other name, to return to Shakespeare for a moment, would smell as sweet. The expression non sequitur is a useful one. These are but a few of the things the book taught me.

One reason why I valued this knowledge was that I sensed my father himself had built much of his life around it. Another was that I sensed the book was important to my father for personal reasons, and that it came with a story. (I still do not know what the story was, although I have theories.) A third reason was that awkward as this may seem to recall on Father’s Day, my father had an argumentative side to his personality. The book which he had recommended taught me how to hold my own. And I discovered in years which came that my father would accept well-reasoned arguments from others, and that he would engage reasonably with them.

Approximately thirty years later, I was living in England and working as an academic. On a visit home, I asked my father if I could borrow The Art of Making Sense to use in my teaching. When my father agreed, I mentioned that I felt slightly guilty about taking it, since we both knew it might be a long time before I would be able to bring it back. My father responded that maybe it was time for the book to become mine. Although my father was always generous with me, I do not remember him ever using words quite like that about anything else that he gave me.

Two years after my father passed, I left England forever. I have – like my father – always tried to be careful about acquiring possessions and equally careful about looking after them. When I cleaned out my office, I determined that I still had every book I had ever brought into it – except for The Art of Making Sense, which was gone. Even when every shelf was bare and every drawer was empty, it did not turn up. It would be nice to imagine that it was time for the book to become someone else’s, and that that person is now making good use of it.