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Five Books for Fathers (and People Who Have Fathers)

By Rob Arnold

As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking of books I’d recommend to my own father. I have fond memories from childhood of sitting with my father while he watched “his shows,” the science and nature and history programming on public televison channels that my other siblings would spurn as too educational to be entertaining. My father, a former Navyman who’d traveled the world in his youth, loved pointing out places he had been to, and I loved discovering a sense of the world through his eyes. Later, after we moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, we would go on hikes together and stand at the summits, taking in the vastness. Or we would go fishing together, which seemed mainly an excuse to sit in inflatable rafts and read, or listen as nature filled in the quietness between us. I don’t know if I inherited my curiosity of the world from him, or if I was drawn to that part of him that intersected with my own sensibilities. In a way, it doesn't matter. It’s the commonality one cherishes.

Here are five titles that, like my father, share a deep interest in the world, or that tell the story of fatherhood itself, with all its memories and complexities and sometime revelations. If your father is anything like mine, I’m sure he would take any of these books, find a quiet place to sit, and then read every word.

'The Good Doctor' by Barron H. LernerThe Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics by Barron H. Lerner

As a practicing physician and longtime member of his hospital’s ethics committee, Dr. Barron Lerner thought he had heard it all. But in the mid-1990s, his father, an infectious diseases physician, told him a stunning story: he had physically placed his body over an end-stage patient who had stopped breathing, preventing his colleagues from performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, even though CPR was the ethically and legally accepted thing to do. Over the next few years, the senior Dr. Lerner tried to speed the deaths of his seriously ill mother and mother-in-law to spare them further suffering.

These stories angered and alarmed the younger Dr. Lerner—an internist, historian of medicine, and bioethicist—who had rejected physician-based paternalism in favor of informed consent and patient autonomy. The Good Doctor is a fascinating and moving account of how Dr. Lerner came to terms with two very different images of his father: a revered clinician, teacher, and researcher who always put his patients first, but also a physician willing to “play God,” opposing the very revolution in patients' rights that his son was studying and teaching to his own medical students.

But the elder Dr. Lerner’s journals, which he had kept for decades, showed the son how the father’s outdated paternalism had grown out of a fierce devotion to patient-centered medicine, which was rapidly disappearing. As his father slowly died of Parkinson’s disease, Barron Lerner found himself being pulled into his dad’s medical care, even though he had criticized his father for making medical decisions for his relatives. Did playing God—at least in some situations—actually make sense? Did doctors sometimes “know best”?

A timely and compelling story of one family’s engagement with medicine over the last half century, The Good Doctor is an important book for those who treat illness—and those who struggle to overcome it.

'Love & Fury' by Richard HoffmanLove & Fury: A Memoir by Richard Hoffman

Richard Hoffman sometimes felt as though he had two fathers: the real one who raised him and an imaginary version, one he talked to on the phone, and one he talked to in his head. Although Hoffman was always close to the man, his father remained a mystery, shrouded in a perplexing mix of tenderness and rage. When his father receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, Hoffman confronts the depths and limitations of their lifelong struggle to know each other, weighing their differences and coming to understand that their yearning and puzzlement was mutual.

With familial relationships at its center, Love & Fury draws connections between past and present, from the author’s grandfather, a “breaker boy” sent down into the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania at the age of ten, to his young grandson, whose father is among the estimated one million young black men incarcerated today. In a critique of culture and of self, Hoffman grapples with the way we have absorbed and incorporated the compelling imagery of post WWII America and its values, especially regarding class, war, women, race, masculinity, violence, divinity, and wealth.

At the book’s core are the author’s questions about boyhood, fatherhood, and grandfatherhood, and about the changing meaning of what it means to be a good man in America, now and into the future.

'Before They're Gone' by Michael LanzaBefore They're Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks by Michael Lanza

A longtime backpacker, climber, and skier, Michael Lanza knows our national parks like the back of his hand. As a father, he hopes to share these special places with his two young children. But he has seen firsthand the changes wrought by the warming climate and understands what lies ahead: Encroaching tides threaten the Everglades. Yosemite’s world-famous waterfalls are disappearing. And it is predicted that Glacier National Park’s seven-thousand-year-old glaciers will be gone in a decade. 

Determined to show his children, Alex and Nate, these wonders before they've changed forever, Lanza takes his family on a quest to see as many climate-threatened wild places as they can fit into a year, including backpacking in the Grand Canyon and Glacier, sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, hiking to Yosemite’s waterfalls, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone, and canoeing the Everglades. 

Through these poignant and humorous adventures, Lanza shares the beauty of each place and shows how his children connect with nature when given “unscripted” time. Ultimately, he writes, this is more their story than his, for whatever comes of our changing world, they are the ones who will live in it.

'Raceball' by Rob RuckRaceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game
 by Rob Ruck

After peaking at 27% of all major leaguers in 1975, African Americans now make up less than one-tenth—a decline unimaginable in other men's pro sports. The number of Latin Americans, by contrast, has exploded to over one-quarter of all major leaguers and roughly half of those playing in the minors. Award-winning historian Rob Ruck not only explains the catalyst for this sea change; he also breaks down the consequences that cut across society. Integration cost black and Caribbean societies control over their own sporting lives, changing the meaning of the sport, but not always for the better. While it channeled black and Latino athletes into major league baseball, integration did little for the communities they left behind.

By looking at this history from the vantage point of black America and the Caribbean, a more complex story comes into focus, one largely missing from traditional narratives of baseball’s history. Raceball unveils a fresh and stunning truth: baseball has never been stronger as a business, never weaker as a game.

'The Many-Headed Hydra' by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus RedikerThe Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic 
by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker

Winner of the International Labor History Award

Long before the American Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a motley crew of sailors, slaves, pirates, laborers, market women, and indentured servants had ideas about freedom and equality that would forever change history. The Many-Headed Hydra recounts their stories in a sweeping history of the role of the dispossessed in the making of the modern world. 

When an unprecedented expansion of trade and colonization in the early seventeenth century launched the first global economy, a vast, diverse, and landless workforce was born. These workers crossed national, ethnic, and racial boundaries, as they circulated around the Atlantic world on trade ships and slave ships, from England to Virginia, from Africa to Barbados, and from the Americas back to Europe. 

Marshaling an impressive range of original research from archives in the Americas and Europe, the authors show how ordinary working people led dozens of rebellions on both sides of the North Atlantic. The rulers of the day called the multiethnic rebels a “hydra” and brutally suppressed their risings, yet some of their ideas fueled the age of revolution. Others, hidden from history and recovered here, have much to teach us about our common humanity.


Rob Arnold is editor of the Beacon Broadside and digital marketing associate at Beacon Press.