On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I was not surprised to see the usual tables of “Father’s Day” suggestions piled high with books about famous white men, making war and doing politics, largely authored by people who look remarkably like their subjects. Around this time last year, I was thinking about related issues, most notably “relevance” and writing for “the public.” There’s lots of talk about Dad Books, which overlaps with talk about crappy popular history, followed by self-flagellation about historians and our bad writing. None of it ever goes anywhere. But I think a lot of the talk of bad writing is overblown, just as I think a lot of the talk about “the public” and its interests is misguided.

If you’re a historian and you want the people in your life to read “good” history, it has to start with knowing what your family members and friends are interested in. One of the things we say is awesome about our discipline is that there’s a history of everything. If there is, surely there’s some good, well-written history on anything the people in your life are interested in.

My dad is a potential reader but rarely an actual reader. By that I mean he loves to read, but he is also a true Yankee who can’t stop working and volunteering. The one time he makes sure to read is our one week of vacation every summer. Still, I get him books all the time, hoping that one day he’ll read them, and he often does. He has a degree in meteorology, works as an architectural consultant, volunteers as a firefighter and an EMT, and teaches both of those subjects. He likes history, but he doesn’t particularly go in for the conventional Dad Book.1)He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home. To that end, I’ve tried to get him books about topics that interest him, but that might bring in a subject he doesn’t even realize is relevant, or examine it in a way that a popular history isn’t going to.

Here are some of the books I’ve gotten him, and how they went over.

Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life Dad read this several summers ago when we were in Maine, and told us all about his reading every night at dinner. I loved it, but I’m not sure my mother and sister did. He didn’t idolize Guthrie beforehand, so I didn’t worry that this would tarnish a hero for him.

Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics I got this last year on the recommendation of one of my doctors at UConn, because it seemed up his alley. I don’t think it’s been touched yet.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History I bought for my father before I’d read it myself. I think that was a mistake.

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City I think my father read this, or part of it, because I think I remember him recounting a story from it to me.

Peter Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation and Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 I got him these because he loves reading about big civil engineering projects, but I wanted to show him how historians can write about the same thing very differently. He read both, and when he was reading the second one, which was Sheriff’s, he mentioned it to me and said how amazing it was that it was presenting such a different interpretation. I count this as one of my real successes.

Ryan Dearinger, The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West I spotted this in a University of California Press sale last fall and snared it for him. He had a hearty laugh at the title when he opened it at Christmas, but I don’t think he’s read it yet.

David Wyatt, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California Another gift this past Christmas, so I don’t think it’s been read yet, but I hope he might like it.

Obviously not all of these have been successes, and some have been outright failures. I think that’s a risk you run any time you get someone a book, though. I’ve certainly been given books that I’ve never broken the spine of. Sure, we should think about how “readable” a book is, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s going to solve the problem. The first step is knowing the people you’re giving or recommending books to. The second might be asking your colleagues for recommendations if they are well-read in an area and you are not. There are plenty of academic history books that are perfectly readable to interested laypeople, but there are some that are dry and unreadable even to those of us who read this stuff for a living, so we should help each other navigate around those boulders.

To that end, any suggestions for books I should get my dad?

References   [ + ]

1. He did read a used copy of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ once, because we all got stories from that one Christmas, but I don’t know whether he picked it up himself or it was mine that I left at home.