As the author of a book on parenthood, I am aware — painfully aware– that most dads don’t buy books about raising kids. But the good news is that you can learn a lot about being a father from books that aren’t explicitly about fatherhood. The following ten books aren’t parenting books in the traditional sense, but they are great reads and full of wisdom about fathers and children. Enjoy!
10. The Moral Animal, Robert Wright
Robert Wright’s overview of evolutionary psychology is a great read and can help fathers understand the biological drives that underlie so much of parental behavior. And while it can be unnerving to learn about the evolutionary origins of our love for our children, in my own experience, the knowledge makes the love no less powerful. Also, you’ll learn why gorillas have small testicles.
9. Patrimony and American Pastoral, Phillip Roth
The frightening thing about Phillip Roth is that his nonfiction is almost as great as his fiction. Roth’s unflinching account of caring for his dying father in Patrimony might depress you, but you still won’t be able to put it down. If you want to be really depressed, and really moved, read American Pastoral. The Swede’s struggle with his radical daughter is just devastating.
8. The Myth of the First Three Years, John Bruer
Tired of reading scary articles that leave you feeling like everything you do is going to screw up your baby for life? Me too. This book will make you feel much better. The infant brain, it turns out, is much more plastic than most people realize. Try as we might, it’s really not that easy to irrevocably screw up a baby.
For busier dads, try the Cliff’s Notes
7. Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
Okay, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to announce to the world that I’ve read Turgenev. And, okay, I read the book years ago and barely remember it. Still, I do remember that Fathers and Sons is a great novel and that Turgenev perfectly captures the helplessness of the father in the face of his child’s nutty ideas. Also, it’s a chance to brush up on your 19th Century nihilism.
6. The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris
Perhaps the most important parenting book ever. The recurring theme on this list is the helplessness of the parent, our intense desire to shape our children according to our beliefs and values, and our intense frustration when we’re unable to do so. Turgenev captures the impotence of the parent in art, but it took another century for science to catch up. Harris picks apart mountains of studies on parenting, and, in the process reveals that we know almost nothing. If different parenting styles influence how a child turns out, no one has proved it yet.
Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, is among a new generation of cognitive scientists who make their living by putting babies through weird experiments. What these experiments show, again and again, is that babies know a lot more than we give them credit for. They can even do math–sort of. In Descartes’ Baby, Bloom focuses on
how babies distinguish between objects and people–between body and soul–and what this distinction reveals about the adult mind. It’s the rare book about babies that will leave you thinking about philosophy and art.
4. Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier
Whether or not you agree with his politics–or, for that matter–whether or not you have any idea what he’s talking about half of the time–Wieseltier is one of the best literary stylists around. Kaddish is both a powerful mediation on fathers and sons, and, especially for the unfamiliar, a fascinating window into Talmudic literature.
3. Roommates, Max Apple
Okay, it would be lame city if I included my own book in this list, but my dad’s book is fair game, no? Roommates is a memoir that recounts how my dad and great grandfather lived together in college and then raised my sister and me when my mother got sick. If you read it and don’t laugh and cry, you’re probably a bad person.
2. Getting Personal: Selected Writings, Phillip Lopate
Lopate, who wrote a book called Bachlerhood, isn’t the first person who comes to mind when it comes to books for fathers, but this collection contains a brilliant essay about Lopate’s old man, and the book is full of wonderful insights about modern manhood. There’s even an essay on beards.
1. King Lear, Shakespeare
There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from King Lear, arguably the greatest work of Western Literature. But no lesson is more central or clear than this: If you’re a total ass of a father, you’ll regret it one day. Big time.