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.

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Contributor

Sam Miller

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