Professor of History and College of Social Studies Tutor Richard Elphick specializes in South African history and the history of Christianity. He sat down with The Argus to discuss his library collection, J. D. Salinger, Richard Dawkins, and Dutch colonialism.
Argus: Tell me about the books on your shelves.
Professor Richard Elphick: These shelves are essentially a warehouse. My current research and much of my teaching concerns South Africa and Christianity. I have two offices at home, one of which is full of books on Christianity, one of which is full of books on South Africa. What you see here are books representing other interests that I have, or that are remnants of other fazes of my intellectual life.
A: Can you give me a quick tour?
RE: Behind me are three shelves of Canadian history. I am, of course, a Canadian.
Over here, further to the right, you see West Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa.
This section concerns my interest in theory and philosophy of history. Over here you have Asia. As a graduate student at UCLA I studied South Asia, India, and Pakistan. Over here you have imperialism, along with shelves on Africa that don’t deal with any particular area. There is a tiny section on the United States; I’m only now becoming interested in American history. There are two long shelves of European history starting with the Hebrews going up through the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, early modern [European history], and leaping into the French and Russian revolutions.
A: Between your office and your home, how many books do you have?
RE: Somewhere around 4000 in this room. At home, I’d imagine my collection is somewhat larger. Apart from my scholarly books, I have 100 books that were the core of my grandfather’s collection. He was a New England lawyer. And we have quite a large collection of fiction in the basement. So I would say maybe another 5000 books.
A: How much time do you spend reading fiction, and what kind of fiction?
RE: As much time as I can, and it’s not actually very much. This job is very demanding in its many facets. So I don’t read as much fiction as I used to. I am particularly interested in Canadian fiction because English Canadians kind of suffer from an inferiority complex. Our arts and music are always overshadowed by the United States. One area where we really made our mark is what is called CanLit—Canadian Literature. Each time I’m up there, I try to pick up a few books and keep abreast of that. I also read novels that deal indirectly with my interest in religion.
A: Any thoughts on the recent death of J. D. Salinger?
RE: When he died I suddenly had this overwhelming urge to reread “Catcher in the Rye,” which I’d read as an undergraduate, and I knew we had a copy. I couldn’t find it, but I couldn’t believe that we had no Salinger. Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe it had fallen behind one of the standing shelves. So I moved one of the American Literature shelves, and there were not one, but four Salinger books behind it. Three of “Catcher in the Rye,” and one of his “Nine Stories.” I have no idea who did that, but the room doubles as a guest room and I can only assume that some visitor who we had there disliked Salinger so intensely that he took all of our Salinger books and hid them.
A: Do you have any books in your office that you consider to be rare?
RE: I’ve never made an interest in collecting rare books. But the ones that you see up there are publications of Dutch colonial documents from the 17th century. And they’re of some interest. Look at those big heavy volumes; there are eight of them. If they were published now in Europe they would be worth $125 dollars a piece because the market of people is infinitesimally small who can read 17th century Dutch and get any sort of pleasure or utility out of doing so. But those volumes probably cost me about $5 dollars apiece. The story is interesting—at the height of apartheid, the Afrikaaner nationalist were very anxious to fund every kind of research that could be done on the history of the whites in South Africa. And those documents are the spine of governmental policy in the first 100 years of South Africa, so they were produced in that very cheap edition. I imagine now that they’re extremely rare. I’ll give them eventually, along with the rest of my South Africa collection, to a school, hopefully a black school, in South Africa.
A: What are you reading in your group tutorial on the Christian response to Atheism and secularization?
RE: We started by reading one atheist from the 1920s, Bertram Russell, and one of the new 21st century Atheists, Richard Dawkins. Otherwise we’re reading people like C. S. Lewis and other authors who tried to defend and articulate Christianity in a modern, secularized setting.
A: What do you think about Dawkins?
RE: Well, I had to choose a modern Atheist. I have a good friend at Yale who is a philosopher and has recently written a refutation, from the Christian perspective, of the four major New Atheists: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. I asked him who is the best representative of the 21st century atheists, and he said Dawkins, without a doubt. So we read him and discussed him. And I must say, I find him very entertaining. But not very persuasive. There is a certain desperation about him. He’s obviously very good on the evolution, of course, but he extends it in every direction, and he gets very speculative. In the second half of the books, he’s sort of flailing about, attacking Christians in the past, Christians in the present, and an awful lot of it is very simplistic. But I enjoyed it. There’s a wonderful passage where he says the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all of fiction, and then lists about 25 adjectives: genocidal, homophobic, misogynistic, and on and on. It’s delightful writing. It hasn’t shaken my faith.
A: What movies have you enjoyed recently?
RE: I watch a lot movies. But I’m afraid they tend to be older movies, which Netflix makes possible for me. I’m particularly interested in movies about the wartime period, and the Second World War. I’m not interested in special effects. I’m not interested in battle scenes. Anything that casts light on what war means.
A: So basically movies like Avatar.
RE: Which I haven’t seen, and probably would not admire.