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One For the Books 

Reading a father-and-son relationship

Published July 6, 2005 at 6:43 p.m.

Every time my dad's birthday rolls around, I go to my local independent shop and ogle books I want to buy him. Four years ago I was convinced The Corrections would make him understand why I wasn't going to have children. This year, I barely resisted the urge to drop that quintessential father's day cliche on him: a biography by David McCullough.

The problem with these gifts is not their content or price tag, but the fact that it would require him to actually read. For as long as I can remember, Dad has simply refused to read a book. It's not as if he suffers from dyslexia or poor eyesight. But, along with skiing and cigar smoking -- activities other American dads seem to cherish -- he just doesn't get why reading books is enjoyable.

Oddly, this dislike of reading never prevented Dad from pushing the activity on me. In fact, every June of my childhood, before the summer turned into one long pick-up basketball game, he sat me down, pulled out a bag of Puffed Wheat, and brought out the East Penn School District reading list.

A native Californian who hated our public schools, my father was convinced Del Campo High School would spit me out into the world ill-prepared for competition with people from "back East." The reading list, given to him at a Rotary Club by a one-eyed principal from Pennsylvania, was his secret weapon. And as far as I could tell, no one with a sense of humor had ever enjoyed one of these books.

"Democracy in America. Have you read that? How about this Mark Twain? He's a classic, isn't he?" Another highlighted line would go through Puddin' Head Wilson. "How about Aaron Copeland on music?"

By the end of the conversation, I'd return to my room with a few thousand pages of reading material and the sinking feeling that I would never, ever see my friends again. Dad, however, would sit down on the couch and fall into a Clint Eastwood marathon playing on the local Fox affiliate.

Although these assignments should have killed my pleasure of reading, they did quite the opposite. As long as he saw me reading, I must have been reading The Book I Had Been Assigned. I'd lie on the floor facing the opposite wall and use my upper body to shield Orwell's 1984. Instead of Bret Harte, I read Charles Bukowski. When I was supposed to be reading Alvin Toffler, I dove into Margaret Atwood.

In the beginning I was sneaky about this, but gradually I realized the best way to get away with something is to do it out in the open. My father may not have read books, but he did read the newspaper cover to cover, beginning with the obituaries. So while he rustled his way through the Sacramento Bee, I could read The Old Man and the Sea right in front of him and not get caught.

After a month or two of this, I began to feel real shame about the scam -- yes, I was that earnest. I remember going back to Democracy in America and feeling small and furtive for hardly even trying to get beyond the opening chapter. I had let my father down.

There was an added dimension of guilt to this that I should note. Dad hadn't always been a non-reader, and I knew this because nearly all the books he assigned to me were taken from his own library. There on the title page I'd find his name penciled in block letters, and he certainly had read the books, because I found his illegible marginalia on their back pages.

My dad had been a bad student with "attention wandering" problems, and my mother never let me forget it. While other families had walking-to-school-in-snowstorm stories, yarns about dad's adversity involved how he overcame his mild attention-deficit difficulties to plow through Berkeley's curriculum.

Still, I couldn't be guilt-tripped into reading something I truly found boring. I think it came down to choice: Remove it from anything delicious and you have created a chore. Around this time it finally occurred to me that Dad didn't read the entire newspaper out of curiosity -- he was procrastinating. Finishing the paper meant work had to begin, and I knew he hated his social-work job.

This lesson in choice stuck with me, and as I moved on into the world, I made sure that, even when I had to read something, it was always on my terms. At college, instead of reading assigned poets such as Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I spent my nights furtively thumbing through Henry Adams, Jack Kerouac and Virginia Woolf. I used Richard Aldington to run an end game around T.S. Eliot. Do I dare eat a peach? I think not!

Thanks to the way all books allude to and build from other books, I always wound up circling back to my assignments -- if not on time, at least through an interesting back door. Jack Kerouac's romantic desire to capture all of the United States in one novel led me back to de Tocqueville; William T. Vollmann's glimpse of life on the northern seas in The Ice Shirt finally got me to start Moby Dick.

As a working book critic with a rolling list of 10 to 20 books I must read, I apply this strategy of controlled disobedience today, and it nearly always works. Whenever I'm reading something I don't like or can't seem to finish, I put it down and read something I know I will enjoy. After an hour, I nearly always remember how fun reading should be, and have the energy to go back and finish the assignment at hand.

But while I've found a way to trick myself into reading, I have yet to do so with my father. In the beginning I tried size -- giving him short books, short stories and essay collections. There have been some close calls. Two years ago, a copy of the sermons of Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes appeared on my father's nightstand, and then six months later it went away. Was it ever finished? I'm afraid to ask.

The only thing I can be sure my father will eventually read is my own book reviews. Every time a newspaper sends me clippings in the mail, I take one copy and put it in a pile; when the stack gets big enough, I ship it off to Dad. Whenever I go home and see the pile of clippings in the guest bedroom, I feel a twinge of glee. Finally, I think, I have imposed that sense of obligation upon my father.

Usually at the end of a family meal, my father will push his chair back, give a snort that announces the beginning of a comment, and begin discoursing about a piece I've written. "I liked your report on the JFK biography," he said to me once. "But wasn't the family worth 25 million, not 100 as you wrote?"

The following week, when I was at my own home and had the book in front of me, I looked it up. My father was right. I called him up later that night. "You were right, Dad, I made a mistake. But how did you know?" His reply was fast and deadpan. "Oh, I don't know. I suppose it's because I read the newspaper."

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About The Author

John Freeman


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