In a special post in honor of Father's Day, Well Read columnist Robert Weibezahl shares memories of his own father and his Top 10 books featuring father-and-son relationships.
Along with my name and my rueful skepticism, I acquired from my father a love of reading. He was an avid reader, and to my enduring envy, a natural speed reader who could devour a book quickly without sacrificing an iota of comprehension. His taste in reading was different from what mine would become, more escapist than literary. My childhood memories are of him reading sea stories (he was a dedicated boatman himself), spy thrillers (my childhood years aligned exactly with the ascendency of James Bond), and brawny Westerns. Yet it is not what he read that left its mark on me, it is the fact that he read. I took on the habit without questioning its source, just as, say, a son invariably roots for the same team as his father without stopping to consider the virtues of its rivals.
Family lore recalls how when my father was young he could remain completely engrossed in a book even while fishing. My grandfather would be irked when his inattentive son would still manage to catch all the fish. A more personal memory for me: riding bicycles with my father and sister to the public library on a warm summer’s evening to check out books. My father, a talented woodworker, also built many of the bookcases that still house my own personal collection.
As my father declined from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, he was no longer able to retain what he read long enough to enjoy a book. I know that was just one of many frustrations his condition brought with it. This is my first Father’s Day since my dad left us last December and, inevitably, I have been thinking a lot about him, and about fathers and sons in general. There are countless books that center on this most primal of relationships, of course, from such 19th-century classics as Turgenev’s Fathers and Son and Dickens’ Dombey and Son (a lot of Dickens, like much of Shakespeare, is about fathers and sons) to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road.
Compiling my own short list of memorable books about fathers and sons took me to those aforementioned bookcases. Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 that have in some way provoked or moved me as a reader. Admittedly, many of the father-son connections in them are problematic (there’s no drama without conflict, after all), but all are illuminating:
All My Sons by Arthur Miller. Miller, of course, wrote searingly about fathers and sons in Death of a Salesman. This tragedy, written two years earlier, offers an emotionally brutal appraisal of the American Dream.
Atticus by Ron Hansen. Its title a nod to one of the most famous and faultless fathers in literature, this elegiac tale of redemption tells of a Colorado rancher who travels to Mexico to retrieve the body of his estranged son, who has purportedly committed suicide.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Though not the central relationships in the book, the father-son pairings—between Charles Ryder and his emotionally remote father and Sebastian Flyte and the sinning Lord Marchmain—add texture to the story and no small measure of insight into these two young men’s inner conflicts.
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. This monumental, fictionalized version of the life of the mythic abolitionist John Brown is told by his son Owen, who survives the raid at Harpers Ferry with equal measures of anger and guilt.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Structured loosely around the first family of Genesis, Steinbeck’s powerful work is a timeless portrait of the conflicts between father and sons and brothers.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. An extended letter from a 76-year-old preacher to his 7-year-old son, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel explores the struggles, faith, and conflicts encountered by four generations of men in the Ames family.
The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt. One of the most eloquent “coming out” novels; Leavitt creates some surprising family dynamics with sensitivity and insight.
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. The story of a slightly deranged father who uproots his family and moves to the jungle is told with affecting admiration and confusion by his 14-year-old son.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carols Ruiz Zafón. A young boy is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his widowed bookseller father, launching an intriguing metaphysical mystery about familial identity and our connections with the past.
The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. After losing their son, Frank Benton and his wife move to a small coastal village in India, where the grieving father takes the son of their servants under his wing with heartbreaking consequences.