5 Books I Gave My Dad and How They Brought Us Closer

Recommending a book includes elements of exposure and risk: “Here. I offer you something I love. Therefore, as you read, you will find out more about me.”

A few years ago I sent my dad one of my favorite non-fiction books, curious to see if he would read it and, if he did, what he would think of it. To my surprise, he read it, we talked about it, and he asked for another book.

At the time of that first book recommendation, Dad was in his early 80s. I thought our history of heartbreak followed by deep reconciliation meant I knew him — no stones left unturned. Apparently not. The more books I recommended and the more we talked about them, the more I realized I’d misjudged him for most of my life, even despite all the courageous work we’d done with each other.

In our house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we lived when I was in high school, an enormous bookshelf rose to the ceiling in a corner of my parents’ bedroom, filled with my dad’s books. As an avid reader myself, I would periodically scan those shelves, desperate to find something to connect with. I sought a way into the mind and life of my dad, a cheery extrovert and the odd duck in our small family of four. But I don’t remember a single instance when I found a book I could relate to amid his collection of counseling, spirituality, religion, and reference books, to my repeated dismay.

And yet, by the end of Dad’s life, when he was 83, he had become the person I most admired, most respected, and most wanted to be like. It seems fitting we would share books there at the end.

Black and white studio photo of man in dark suit, white shirt, patterned tie. He has short hair and wears glasses with thick black frames.

Here’s my favorite photo of my dad. That was how he looked when I was a little kid, including that hint of an almost-smile and the mischief in his eyes, even in a serious photograph. This photo is on display in my living room, which is unusual, because I don’t like things with eyes staring at me as I go about my private business at home (it’s a thing). Dad is the exception. I like to know he’s here, still in my life on a daily basis, reminding me to smile, to heal and be courageous, to take responsibility for my own clean-up, and to love people where they are.

Listed below are the books I sent to Dad. There are only five because that’s how far we got before he died. He read whatever books I recommended and always wanted more. We would start conversations about the books and they would to lead us into new territory as we shared our observations and ideas. I only wish we’d started sooner and he’d recommended his favorite books to me.

In a horizontal row, the five book covers of the books listed in the text of the article

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, by Tony Hawks | The charm of Tony Hawks is the outrageous dares he turns into personal growth adventures and books. The first book of his I read and enjoyed was Round Ireland with a Fridge. For me, his Moldovans book has a deeper story, and that was the one I sent to Dad as a first recommendation.

French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France, by Tim Moore | I’m a sucker for funny and unique travel literature (one such book I read, about a woman who toured her elderly mother around Italy, has this wonderful title: Incontinent on the Continent; by Jane Christmas). French Revolutions remains my favorite travel adventure book, due to the author’s awe-inspiring combination of ineptitude and humor. I’ve gifted this book more than any other.

Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, by Martha Beck | Sending this one to Dad felt like a bigger risk. He had a long history of involvement in various church organizations, worked as a pastor and a chaplain in a succession of denominations over the decades, and had a PhD in theology. But Martha Beck, life coach and one of my go-to writers about personal development, delivers meaning and fresh perspectives along with her usual humor. Dad liked this book and found it fascinating.

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck, by Gary Kinder | Who can resist a treasure-hunting adventure tale? What I savored about this story were the different threads woven together: the high-stakes competition to find the ship (wrecked in 1875 with a cargo from the California Gold Rush), the technology and engineering aspects, the accounts of the shipwreck from people who survived it, and the biographical insights into the man who led the discovery.

A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning, by Gretel Ehrlich | Ehrlich is one of my lodestars for writing about nature. I’d read and marveled over Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, so when I found A Match to the Heart, I leapt in with both feet. I’m also a sucker for quality popular science books, and this story of Ehrlich (and her dog’s) survival during a lightning strike and through the aftermath gripped and satisfied on multiple scores.

The last time I saw my dad, he and his wife and I sat at the dining table for dinner at their house in the flat countryside near Tulsa, and I braved a mention of the novel I’d written, told him it was a romance story about two men, and held my breath, unsure of how he might react, even after all our years in each other’s lives.

Dad set down his fork with a clatter and his head snapped up. “That,” he said, “should have been the first thing you told us when you walked in the door. Congratulations, honey. When can I read it?”

I have a terrific imagination. When I step up to Dad’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in a place between reality and forever, it’s easy to see the book he set in pride of place. It’s my book, there at eye level, front cover facing out.

Dad died before he got to read Everyday History, but I believe he knows what I’ve done and what I’m doing and is proud of me. I see it on his face every day in the photo in my living room, and I feel it in the heart I got from him that beats life into my chest and love into my words.

Alice Archer is the author of The Infinite Onion and Everyday History, thought-provoking romance novels for strong hearts. You can subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free story, notification of new articles and books, and more.

Read (or listen to) an article about Alice’s mom: The Black Desk

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