Father’s Day is not Gadget Day, or it doesn’t have to be. You could knock the old man’s socks off (by not giving him socks, for starters, or soap-on-a-rope) and give him something different, like a book. Or you could split the difference and do the gadget thing with a tablet reader, and then load his new gadget of choice… with books. You’ll find plenty of advice out there when it comes to e-readers. But when it comes to what to put on those devices, things get murky. We’re here to help.
Great books, like Sarah Bakewell’s quest for Montaigne or John Sayles’ new sprawling novel, tickle the imagination, the way Dad once roused you in the middle of the night to show you a meteor shower. It’s your turn to rekindle his curiosity, so here are 15 titles that we hope he’ll love.
1. The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisBy David McCullough
David McCullough is the great paternal figure of American history, the winner of not one but two Pulitzer Prizes. (For Truman and John Adams.) If your father is a history buff, then he would have been eagerly awaiting his new volume, a grand tour of the young, talented Americans who journeyed to Paris and built the foundations of America upon the French intellectual grid. They were the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes and (here’s an excerpt) John Singer Sargent. Reading this tale, you’ll realize that the Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris were mimics of earlier waves of pioneers pulled not only by the gravity of European geography but by what Charles Sumner termed “the prestige of age.”
2. Stan Musial By George Vecsey
Good-natured, nice to his mom, brilliant on a baseball field, and consistently the most underrated great player to ever hit a baseball—fans who voted in 1999 for the 25 greatest players of the last century somehow forgot to include the man who had 3,630 hits. Vecsey finds the human being inside the legend of niceness, but this is no takedown—Stan the Man was as nice and decent as he was great.
3. Go the F**k to SleepBy Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes
Once there was a little book/ That preached a peaceful theme/ of naps and rest and all-night sleep/ In language most extreme./ It looked just like a book for kids/ The kind you read at night/ To lull the little tots to sleep/ But wait—that’s not quite right./ This is a book for Mom and Dad / that’s full of bile and cat-/ iness, a book so mean, such dirty fun/ You’ll say, I wish I’d thought of that.
4. A Moment in the SunBy John Sayles
Does Sayles ever get tired? We’re not referring to his even more prolific, parallel career as a director of spirited independent films like Lone Star and Passion Fish. It’s just that his novel, A Moment in the Sun, is nearly 1,000 pages long, and it charts the wild landscape that is the turning away from the 19th century into the infancy of the 20th. And although its polyphonic scope recalls Ragtime, Doctorow’s playful prose flits and fragments, while Sayles’ is at the ground level, combing not only every inch of America but even far below its outer aura—from the gold diggers in the Yukon to the sinking battleships in Cuba. A moment? In the sun? This is muddy, murky fiction that’s a pleasure to trudge through.
5. 1861: The Civil War AwakeningBy Adam Goodheart
Romantics attracted by the glory of battle (what Lincoln called the “attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood”), pragmatic slavers looking to protect their investments, fire-breathing abolitionists brooking no more compromise—Goodheart composes an amazing tapestry of American life as the country tumbled into civil war.
6. Man With a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their FamiliesEdited by John Donohue
It’s a really great rhyme, so what’s not to love? This isn’t one of those best-of collections filled with essays that have already been anthologized to death, but an intimate sprinkling of bites and bits put together by John Donohue, a New Yorker editor, who says that he does almost all the cooking for his family. So it is that he sympathizes with the dads who have to know how to truss a chicken, for your sake. Mario Batali and Stephen King ladle their offerings on the page, but the lesser-knowns, like Jack Hitt of This American Life (“I became a man, one might argue, the night I was completely unmanned by a cup of celery leaves”) and Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary (who became a vegetarian after he began dating one, prompting a friend to call it a “sexually transmitted eating disorder”), make up the bulk and are the standouts. Books on cooks!
7. The Tragedy of ArthurBy Arthur Phillips
The Tragedy of Arthur is a long-lost play by Shakespeare—then why is it “by Arthur Phillips”?—found at last… by a hoaxer father who’s always tried to create wonder for his children. And what’s a greater wonder than a new five-act bewitchment from the Bard? A good one, too, one that survived the crucible of Shakespeare scholars like the ebullient James Shapiro , who helped make the words more like Will’s. At its core, the novel is a penetrating study of the charm of artifice, and a loving tribute to a father who creates everyday magic for his son. A man sort of like Prospero. Or even Shakespeare.
8. Alphabetter Juice, or the Joy of TextBy Roy Blount, Jr.
A sequel to the hit Alphabet Juice, the beloved humorist’s dissection, dismantling, and fondling of phrases, figures of speech and other assorted wordplay, the second helping is more of the same, which means that it’s another flat-out delight, instructional and funny. What else could you want? (Except maybe a third serving?)
9. How to Live, or The Life of MontaigneBy Sarah Bakewell
The author’s own beautifully crafted essays collectively add up to a full-scale biography of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), a man who truly was for all seasons—and a man who always sounds so surprisingly modern (“Philosophy is doubt”) because he subscribed to no orthodox code of belief but tried at every turn, and without worrying about self-contradiction, to figure things out for himself. There has never been a better role model for a life well lived.
10. Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned By John A. Farrell
A labor lawyer who would betray the cause of labor at one of its most crucial moments, a defender of little monsters (Leopold and Loeb) and feckless school teachers (John Scopes), a jury tamperer, Darrow never lost a client to the executioner, which helped make him the first superstar attorney in American history. He was too complicated and contradictory to be an outright hero. But as a subject for a biography, he couldn’t be better.
11. Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic ArmageddonBy Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner
For the father who’s a CNBC buff but wants more—he wants to understand how Wall Street and Washington joined hands and nearly brought down this thing we have come to know as our entire socio-economic system. You’re in the good hands of Morgenson, a New York Times columnist whom we’ve come to rely on to safeguard our interests. She partnered with housing expert Joshua Rosner to see who pulled the thread that sent the whole veil unraveling. (They trace it to James A. Johnson, the chief executive of Fannie Mae from 1991 to 1998, who enriched himself through a partnership with the private sector.) There’s still much to learn about this last meltdown.
12. Tabloid CityBy Pete Hamill
Built around the story of a murder investigation over 24 hours (socialite and secretary murdered, setting off a strange chain of events), this is a love note to a city (New York) and a profession (newspapering), but a love note with a twist: Read it and run the risk that you, too, will fall for the objects of the author’s affection.
13. Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for AmericaBy David Reynolds
Malcolm X: A Life of ReinventionBy Manning Marable
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with IndiaBy Joseph Lelyveld
Take your pick, or get all three of these great biographies about great men. Or great women. Or “the little woman who made this great war,” as in the case of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the subject, along with her creation Uncle Tom, of Reynolds’ ode to the pen and how it can change the world. The way that Malcolm X changed the world was very different, and Marable dedicated his life to scrutinizing “the social architecture” of the always charismatic and sometimes foolhardy man. Gandhi’s failings, like Malcolm X’s, were also great, and legend obscures the facts of both their lives. We need brilliant writers to spring historical figures free, and Lelyveld (whose book was banned in India) ultimately remembers the little man’s immense glory, his ability to inspire epic greatness.
14. Caleb’s CrossingBy Geraldine Brooks
You can taste the ocean air in this story of a daughter named Bethia and her Calvinist minister father, who live in an early Colonial island later to be known as Martha’s Vineyard. She’s torn when her father sends Caleb, the genius son of a chieftain, to Harvard, while she herself makes the crossing to Cambridge only as a housekeeper. Brooks is enchanted by the lushness of historical fiction, and she invokes the exacting language of the faraway past to reach across the ages and fill our senses with the rhythm of the founding days.
15. The Big Book of Adventure StoriesEdited by Otto Penzler
Army ants, soldiers of fortune, mysterious islands, anacondas, Tarzan, femme fatales—story after story to keep you turning pages well past your bedtime, sometimes crafted by geniuses such as Kipling, more often told by hacks you’ve never heard of, but don’t be bothered by the lack of pedigree. First published in the pulp magazines of the '20s, '30s and '40s, these stories have a zany energy that grabs you by the lapels and holds you right up to the moment the hero and heroine escape the crocodile’s jaws.