“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
If you have followed my blog at all in the past year, you are likely aware that I lost my father a year ago this month. In fact, Father’s Day 2013 was the last time I saw my father in person, and was the last time I had my photo taken with him. He had told me that it wasn’t necessary for me to come down to see him, but I had insisted; he was injured, and not moving particularly well, but the smile on his face when I walked through the door made every moment worthwhile.
I won’t talk about how difficult this Father’s Day has been for me, or how much I’ve been reminded of my father lately. There’s been enough melancholy on these pages for that, and my father would have been the first to tell me to think positively and to look to the future while learning from the past. To that end, this will be a different Father’s Day post. Instead of memories about my Dad – and there are thousands that I could share – I’m going to share some of my Dad’s favourite books.
It should be said that my mother and my father shared a voracious appetite for books, and would read constantly. They had piles of books scattered all over the house, with multiple books on the go depending on their moods. My father began each day reading the Globe and Mail before getting breakfast for the family – both traditions that he passed on to his children – and continued reading until he fell asleep on the coach at night. While he was certainly open to reading pretty much anything, my Dad has his favourites – the books he went back to time and time again. Here are a few of those beloved ‘keepers’.
Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash by Ogden Nash & Anthony Burgess
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.
My father always had a sense of the absurd. No matter the situation, he had a quip or quote to suit the occasion, much to our dismay as teenagers. His favourites often came from Ogden Nash, who had the same sense of humour – but also the same desire to poke fun at social conventions. Unlike Nash, my father never utter misogynistic or racist comments, but he fervently believed that there was no institution that shouldn’t be mocked, if only for their own good.
The Last Lion Series by William Manchester and Paul Reid
“The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong.”
There was much about Churchill that fascinated my father – his role during the wartime crisis, the way he ran the country, his personal quirks – but his speeches were always top of the list for Dad. There was something incredibly stirring in Churchill’s recorded speeches and interviews, and the intelligence demonstrated was something my father greatly admired. Manchester and Reid’s multi-volume biography was thorough and thoughtful (although my father had his quibbles with it), and a source of intense reading and reflection for many days and nights. His enthusiasm was infectious; I believe both my brothers picked up the volumes after my father had finished with them, and they live on my TBR shelf as I type.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
I can trace my love of all things Dickens to my father. From a Christmas Carol when we were very young to the more sophisticated (and, let’s face it, lengthy) novels later on, my father adored them all. While we tussled over the merits of Great Expectations and David Copperfield, we were in complete agreement that A Tale of Two Cities was perhaps the most magnificent of all Dickens’ work. My father was so insistent that I read it that I remember him sneaking my battered copy in with him to church, passing it over to me so that I could finish those last few chapters instead of listening to the sermon. My mother was horrified, but I was entranced, and ultimately a weeping mess as Carton was taken away to his death.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
A seasonal piece to be sure, but my father had an original vinyl recording of Thomas reading this aloud that became a family tradition in all its scratchy glory. While the story may be a romanticized version of a traditional Christmas, it was also a brilliant piece of storytelling that my father impressed upon us every holiday season, pointing out the timeless nature of the true holiday spirit. The best gift of all for us, however, came at the end of the story, when my father would share stories of holidays spent with my aunt and my Granny.
John A.: The Man Who Made Us by Richard Gwyn
This excellent biography, and the companion that followed (Nation Maker) were favourites of my father. Not only was the subject matter something he was passionate about (he devoured anything to do with Canadian History) but he admired how the author laid out the biography and the honesty portrayed within the pages. Evidently others agreed, as the author went on to win the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction in Canada for these books. For my father, the history of the politician as a man – and a flawed one at that – was essential to the understanding of who they were as a leader, and how they ran their party. Discussing political biographies with my father taught us to consider the whole picture when examining candidates and leaders.
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
As you may have gathered, poetry was a huge part of my father’s life, and he taught us to appreciate and love it simply by making part of every day. Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland made up many of my bedtime stories growing up, and my father would embellish many more, just to string out the tales. The absurdist poetry was never neglected and even my four nieces have strong memories of my father reciting bits and pieces of various famous poems to them in their childhood. In fact, it was so much a part of their shared history that they banded together to recite “The Walrus and the Carpenter” at his funeral. I can still recite ever word.
There are more books than this on his list – I could have covered his love of Canadian mysteries, especially those by Eric Stanley Wright and Louise Penny, or the delight he found in the works of Terry Fallis – but this gives a brief taste of Dad’s favourites. My only regret is that there have been at least a dozen or so books out in the past year that I know my father would have loved, and I often catch myself mentally setting one aside for him. Still, I know that a number of these books are on my keeper shelf as well, and when I miss my father a little more than usual, I can pull one off the shelf and take comfort in knowing that I’m reading it right along with him.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Here’s to a lifetime of great reads.