Remembering Dad’s Love of Books …

Every Father’s Day since my father passed away in 2009, I reflect about his love of reading. Typically a football, basketball or baseball game blared on the television as a sort of background music while he was deeply immersed in either a paperback mystery or, more likely, a thick historical novel or biography.  It was often a form of relaxation for him, maybe a way to get his mind off of work in the evenings. In the summers on vacations and weekends, he read voraciously when he wasn’t driving the ski boat, dragging us outside to do yard work, or napping in the sun.

About the time I hit middle school, he started encouraging me to read some of the books. One summer he had me read John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles, and I tore through these American war stories filled with family intrigue and romance. (Romance. I couldn’t believe my dad was having me read this stuff. They were the only books I ever recall my mother reading.) Later I began lifting David McCullough tomes off the shelf or Dad’s side table, challenging myself with both the vocabulary and the stamina it took to keep with these stories that always began at about the start of time. Later when I graduated from college in Northern California, Dad insisted I read McCullough’s novel Chesapeake (1978) before I moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It prepared me fairly well for the cultural transition I subsequently faced.

During long distance phone calls, we often traded book recommendations. I could always find a book for him for Father’s Day he would love to read. Later in life, as he tried to downsize his overflowing bookshelves, he would put together boxes of selections from different collections. My job was to read through them and tell him which authors I wanted to read more, and he promised to send more along. Most of the boxes were filled with historical fiction or nonfiction, some biography, and some mysteries (he loved John Le Carré). I liked all of them, but preferred the history and biography.

I wish I could talk to him about what I’m reading now. I am nearing the end of City of Dreams (2016), a thorough historical survey by New Yorker writer Tyler Adams about immigrant life in New York City.  It provides pertinent context for today’s immigration debate, but is also useful for anyone interested in genealogy (I am a personal historian, so it answered several questions for me about tracing certain lineages).

One of my book clubs (yes, I’m in two), read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) (I tend to agree with this review) last month. I’m not sure Dad would have gone for that book. But he likely would have picked up the just-released Love, Africa (2017) by Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times who recounts of some of his dangerous reporting exploits in Africa mixed with stories about his relationship with his wife.  It’s had mixed reviews. (And for whatever reason, Barnes and Noble shelved it in the travel section.) It’s next on my reading list.

I am sure Dad would have loved to read the book that’s sitting on the side table in the family room between my husband and my two leather chairs: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017) by David Grann. (I found the book when recently writing an in-depth story about Indian sovereignty and energy development.)

My daughter is preparing to embark on a trip to South Africa, and her guide strongly recommended Long Walk to Freedom (1995), the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Yes, I bought it. It sits on my coffee table, yet unread, beneath a copy of David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1983), which a longtime friend and former newspaper colleague strongly recommended.

My frenzied purchase of books sometimes annoys my husband. The UPS man drops off Amazon packages throughout the week. But I assure him that many are for work, which always provides me an excuse to delve into more history that my father surely would have loved. I have been purchasing books about World War II as I conduct research for a client’s memoir I am refining. Mark Bando’s 101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles in World War II (2011), and Reporting the War: How Foreign Correspondents Risked Capture, Torture and Death to Cover World War II (2017) by Ray Moseley are among those stacks of books. Those go into my office, stacked atop the books on Native Americans — such as Peter Cozzens’ The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Stories of the American Wars for the Indian West (2016) – which I read for the last writing project.

In a town in western Maryland, nearby the cabin where I often retreat, is an idyllic small bookstore where the owners have read everything. I buy at least a couple books every time I visit. Last winter I picked up a book strongly recommended to me by my father in-law and one of the shop owners: Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionalized Medicine and American Politics (2016) by Stephen Coss. Good thing I did, as my husband immediately recommended it for his book club. (Their reviews were mixed on it, by the way.)

My husband and I watched the movie “Lion” recently. I was enthralled with the true story of this Indian boy who becomes accidentally separated from his family when he boards a train to Calcutta. He soon is captured and placed in an orphanage, then adopted by a couple in Australia. Later in life he sets out in search of his birth family in India. I had some questions when the movie was over, to which my husband responded (did he really mean to say this?), “Well, it’s based on the guy’s memoir.” Yep, it just arrived: A Long Way Home: A Boy’s Incredible Journey from India to Australia and Back Again (2015) by Saroo Brierley.

Summer is here. I should have some easy reads next to my armchair. Yet there’s the start of the book pile on the kitchen table on military history for an article I need to start researching – including the just-published Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (2017) by Admiral James Stavridis and Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917 (2017). Surely, my husband says, I must be keeping the book industry alive. Yet, I know I am not alone; others are posting their recent reads on Goodreads, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media sites.

These books may not always provide a diversion from daily events, but often they provide inspiration with the stories of overcoming hardships or of political battles that paved the way for better laws. And they always remind me of Dad sitting in his arm chair, a large book in his lap or a paperback novel held up in one of his large hands, and his glasses perched low enough on his nose so he could glance up at the football game at critical moments.

One thought on “Remembering Dad’s Love of Books …

  1. Chuck McCutcheon says:

    You’re turning into quite an essayist. Nice Father’s Day piece. For my dad, it was “Huckleberry Finn,” which he taught to his seventh-grade Language Arts students. I read it at his insistence when I was in second or third grade.

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