A Few Good Books for Dads

Just in time for Father’s Day, author John Elder Robison recommends a few unconventional books to help dads become better dads.

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Why is it that we have hundreds of parenting books for moms or by moms, but almost nothing by and for dads? Is it because we dads already know what to do? Or might it be because we hate having anyone tell us what to do? Either way, if you’re a dad, and if you’re willing and able to read, I’ve put together a list that will travel anywhere, in any and all weather. I offer books with comfort and advice you can rely on from the day your infant son comes home from the hospital to the morning he leaves to join the Foreign Legion. And if you have a daughter, don’t lose heart! She can enjoy all these same things, and when she grows up, she’ll be welcomed in the Legion, the Merchant Marine, and even the circus.

For the basics of parenthood, there is always The Care and Feeding of Children by Luther Emmett Holt. This book was first published in 1905, but like a fundamentalist sermon, its insights remain fresh and valuable today. Many questions are answered, like: What are the objections to having an infant sleep out of doors? The answer, to the relief of every dad who has been kept up all night by a howling child, is succinct: “There are no real objections.” This book—from an era when people weren’t so cautious and fearful—will give inspiration and succor to any first-time parent. It will give you the courage to put that howling toddler out where he belongs at 3 a.m.—among the coyotes!

When you bring your baby back inside he may enjoy a story or two. Some of my favorites are Where the Wild Things Are; Green Eggs and Ham; Oh, The Places You’ll Go!; and the best one of all, Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go.

You may want to talk with your child about current events—broaden his horizons, as it were. Two excellent sources of story material are Professional Mariner and Trains magazine. You’ll find all the news on the latest locomotives, tugs, passenger liners, and tankers. Both are lavishly illustrated, so your child will enjoy reading them with you.

Are you looking for things to do together, as father and son? Check out Stine’s Handbook of Model Rocketry. Building your own rockets is a fun and satisfying activity. If that’s not your thing, I suggest you peruse the hobby aisles of your favorite bookstore, as there are many other excellent possibilities from radio-control cars to motocross riding to ferret farming. Those are all great alternatives to the default pastime of most American teen boys: videogaming.

When your kid gets a little older, he might want to read on his own. My kid found his stride reading Harry Potter—perhaps yours will too. Results are not guaranteed. I also recommend some great stories from our past, like Gulliver’s Travels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. A child who masters the classics will stand apart from the uncouth boors on the school bus. However, such intellectual superiority—if noticed—might have to be defended, so you would be wise to also seek books on boxing or the martial arts and get ready to practice.

Next we come to Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford, and Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson. These two classics will give you priceless insight into what can happen when children are allowed to go feral. Chances are, you’ll resolve to be a more attentive parent after reading these, unless you’re feral yourself, in which case they will still be enjoyable stories about others of your own kind.

After reading Hell’s Angels, it’s important to be reminded that not all bikers end up like the ones in Thompson’s book. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a classic tale of a father-son journey with a totally different flavor. It’s noteworthy that the characters in Hell’s Angels rode Harleys, whereas the protagonist of Zen rides a Honda 305, the very same machine I rode in my own youth. However, be forewarned that I too ride a Harley today—a vintage Springer Softail chopper. Some would say I went over to the dark side; others would give the nod to the bullwhip.

When your son gets older, you might encourage him to do manly and practical things, like building bridges or dams. It’s important to remember that structures fail, and structures designed by children are particularly prone to such fates. When your child’s constructions collapse, you might find solace in Henry Petroski’s books, one of which is To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. Remember: the designers of our greatest works of civil engineering—the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building—started out playing in the sandbox, just like your kid.

My final recommendation is one of those books you hope you won’t need, though deep down ... you know it’s all too likely. It’s the Martindale-Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. (If you read Raising Cubby, you’ll understand that I’m not kidding about this.) This fine reference is updated every year, so you’ll want to be sure to have the latest edition on hand. Not only will it direct you to people who can protect your wayward child, it will point you to others who can mitigate your own missteps—securities fraud, claim jumping, practicing medicine without a license, and more. All for a fee, of course.