Book clinic: which books distil the essence of fatherhood?

From 19th-century letters to a graphic novel, here are the works that define dad-dom

Which books should we read to explore the essence of fatherhood?
Don, 30, book editor and literary translator, Wuhan, China

Author Sam Miller, whose book Fathers was published earlier this year, writes:
I had a dream the other day. Of several fathers, bald and lame, thrown into a huge tureen over a great campfire. They were about to be boiled. Not as a way of torturing them, or as a punishment for mansplaining, or even as a way of making them digestible, but in order to create an essential oil, an essence of fatherhood, to be freely sprinkled on to those who wished for better fathers than the ones that nature, and their mothers, gave them.

Most fathers fail to live up to expectations, until they are dead and gone, by which time they are either sanctified, or cast to hell – with little in between. And as in life, so in literature; there is no essence of fatherhood. And on the whole, it is the bad fathers whom everyone remembers. King Lear, for instance, has two of them, finely drawn; Lear himself, who ignores the daughter he should listen to, and the Earl of Gloucester, who treats his bastard son as if he were of no account.

Among modern writers, I’d recommend Max Porter, whose exquisite Grief Is the Thing With Feathers has an imperfect father bringing up his sons after their mother dies, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which reveals the author in the minutest detail as a sentimental and flawed father. There’s also Alison Bechdel’s superb graphic novel Fun Home with its far from faultless recently deceased father. I read Bechdel’s book not long after my own father died, and it had me in fits of laughter, which was just what I needed. Finally, I’d recommend a book by someone called Samuel Miller – not my own book on my fathers, but that of a 19th-century namesake – whose Letters from a Father to His Sons in College, is available free on the internet and provides a good guide to what was once thought the essence of fatherhood.

Submit your question for Book Clinic below or email


Sam Miller

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Book clinic: which books examine modern masculinity?
Writer Darran Anderson bypasses Houellebecq in favour of fiction from Édouard Louis to Hanif Kureishi

Darran Anderson

07, Mar, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books will help me navigate singledom in my early 20s?
Guidebooks to love and life from Nora Ephron to Bryony Gordon

Candice Carty-Williams

08, Jun, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books can help me weather my parents’ divorce?
A selection of books to offer guidance and comfort through painful times

Francesca Segal

24, Nov, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: recommended books about the best of humanity
From a redemptive tale set in Norfolk to classic Michael Frayn, our expert selects books that are funny and inspiring

Kate Kellaway

24, Mar, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books best examine the nature of loneliness?
From Proust’s explorations of consciousness to Olivia Laing’s meditations on isolation, solitude is literature’s friend

Alex Clark

17, Nov, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what can I read to stay sharp on maternity leave?
Author Viv Groskop helps select the best political, poetical and fictional reads to keep you in touch with the world

Viv Groskop

11, May, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: what can I read after work instead of watching TV?
From Jane Austen to medical memoirs, books that will help leave thoughts of the office behind

Hannah Beckerman

08, Feb, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Which novels or memoirs will help prepare me for motherhood?
Francesca Segal recommends literary explorations of new emotional territory

Francesca Segal

25, Apr, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books might wean my teenage daughter off screens?
From ghostly tales to pop music, our expert picks the titles that are just as compelling as any computer game

Fiona Noble

12, Jan, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
Book clinic: which books will help to heal a broken heart?
Out of love with romance? Our expert suggests novels to analyse the processes of love, regain perspective and make you laugh

Lisa Appignanesi

07, Jul, 2018 @5:00 PM