Reading with my father

Like many members of the Greatest Generation, my dad started a career and family in the 1950’s. But he was not a Mad Man. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. He didn’t work overtime at his job as a time-study man at the local aircraft manufacturing plant. He didn’t go to business dinners or cocktail parties. He did, however, putter. And read. He still spends time in the public library, reading history books, biographies, books on economics, mysteries – anything that strikes his fancy. Here’s what my dad taught me about reading:

Always read the instructions.

Puttering for my dad involved learning how to do something he had never done before. I learned from him that you should always read the instructions. If you do, you can learn how to build your own stereo system, how to operate and repair your lawn mower, how to build a birdhouse, how to assemble a radio-controlled model airplane.

There are always mishaps, of course. Every summer my sisters and I went on the train with our mother to visit our grandmother in South Carolina for a week while my dad stayed home, went to work, and puttered. Sometimes we’d come back to a brand new item – like an iron – purchased when his attempts to fix the old one failed. We also came home to the faint smell of cigars in the back yard – but that’s another story.

Some of his projects involved making pieces of art. He was always interested in art: We went to the High Museum in Atlanta regularly, and our big trip to Washington D.C. was marred for him when the National Gallery was shut down by an inconvenient visit by the Queen of England. He has never been to France but at 91 he still thinks about going to Paris for a visit to the Louvre.

Once he decided to learn how to print using wood blocks. I’m not sure about my memory here but I think this is the same project that involved making silhouettes. I remember sitting very still sideways in front of a sheet. With a special light he adjusted the size of my silhouette and made a paper pattern. He then transferred the pattern to the woodblock, cutting the silhouette into the woodblock. Finally he inked and stamped the silhouette onto paper for the finished piece of art.

Another time he decided to experiment with bookbinding. It seems like this task involved glue and clamps, and it was messy. Now you can Google instructions for making silhouettes and binding your own books – I did and found some very interesting how-to instructions on these subjects. But back then, you had to rely on a book for your instructions, and I’m sure that’s what he did.

Nonfiction can be fun.

This is not a lesson that I learned easily. When I read for fun, I read fiction.

My dad enjoyed reading Robert Louis Stevenson adventures to us aloud and he does indulge in the occasional detective novel. But his focus seems to be on history, world events, psychology, and social and cultural topics of the day. When I was growing up, discussions of what my dad was reading could be lively, depending on what topic he had picked up, but the problem was that he was the only person in the family actually reading nonfiction. The rest of us were busy reading Jane Eyre and Rebecca.

I did pick up on my dad’s habit of researching topics of interest. In the 80’s, for example, I lived in Albuquerque, NM, and commuted daily to Santa Fe on a state van driven by a prison guard. I decided to read up on the infamous 1980 prison riot. That might have been a mistake, because what I read was horribly gruesome, but it did give me some insight on the need for prison reform.

For the most part, though, I did not read nonfiction much until I moved to be near my parents a few years ago. I started going with my dad to church, and we joined the church book club. This club is a no-nonsense, one-hour-a-month discussion of a book (not necessarily a religious one). The group reads history, biographies, fiction, and nonfiction, and I have read and enjoyed books that I never would have picked up on my own. Sometimes I’m not able to make it through a book and sometimes he can’t either, but we always read enough of each book to talk about it ahead of time.

Recently my dad and I were in charge of leading the discussion of Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, autobiographical vignettes by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. In this blog I’ll talk about this book and some others that my dad and I read with our book club.

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