When I consider the category of books for parents, I obviously think of my own and their reading preferences. My mom and my dad both respectively hold onto nice, clothbound editions of their favorite books, but their reading preferences change with the times. They’re both willing to pick up almost anything. For dads specifically, the Father’s Day table at a bookstore tells a different story: WWII history books, sports memoirs, and a few grilling cookbooks. There are also some books that address the reality of being a dad. Looking across our personal experiences and the vagaries of fatherhood, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is a “dad book”?
The general definition of a “dad book” has two categories: books for dad to read and books about being a dad. Getting a book for a new dad is a different task than getting a book for your dad for Father’s Day. One is based on the societal role, and the other is based on stereotypes about dads that have been built over the summation of various dads’ personal preferences.
Buying a Dad Book for the Dad In Your Life
I am writing about the category of Dad from a distance, with just the experience of having a dad. When I look for a book for my dad, I have to make sure he didn’t already buy something for himself through email newsletters or word of mouth. He’s a big fan of many bands categorized as “dad rock,” like Steely Dan and Van Morrison, and he does read a fair number of books by sports writers or historical novels.
His personal taste developed through the latter half of the 20th century, and he passed many of those interests down to me, from enjoying Steely Dan to fantasy novel obsession, as well as a general interest in reading nonfiction.
I think a lot of writers reflecting on their own parents right now are around my age (late 20s / early 30s), and the culture we see our dads consuming becomes the central concept of what dads like. The dominance of the taste of Baby Boomer dads is giving way to the dominance of the Gen X Dad, and soon, the Millennial Dad will reign supreme. Dads who love video games would absolutely love Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
From my perspective, Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker and his multi-part biography about Lyndon B. Johnson are still some of the ultimate “dad books.” They’re a thorough series of American history meant to stretch over long days of reading in an armchair. These books far surpass the category of “dad book,” as the Caro fans are well-known to be a diverse group, which you can see in the documentary Turn Every Page.
The category of “books we get for our dads” feels like a holdover from the aggressively gendered categories of culture from the previous several decades. If your dad only wants to read fiction about wars, that’s great. If he’s invested in mysteries about English country houses, there are tons of cozy mysteries to stock next to an armchair as well.
On Becoming a Dad
A dad book for someone who has become a dad and needs some advice is also in high demand. I spoke to Hugh O’Neill, author of a few books about fatherhood and the book Just a Zillion Things Before You Go, a guide for your kids who are moving out and onwards.
O’Neill recalled that in the mid-1980s, when he was an editor at Doubleday, a trend began for more humorous takes on fatherhood, as opposed to books strictly written by experts about the nitty-gritty of parenting. The book Good Morning Merry Sunshine by Bob Greene focused on the first year of his life as a parent with a comedic approach, and it was a major bestseller.
In 1988, he published Daddy Cool, a humorous guide to fatherhood to address the weirdness of parenting: “Men of my generation were brought up with this notion that we should be cool and understated and John Wayne-y. Then of course when you have a kid, all of those things get thrown out the window. You’re crawling around making goo-goo noises.” The act of parenting is universally destabilizing, and memoirs of being a dad were meant to recognize that. Despite their target of fathers, I do think these books speak to a universal experience of devoting your life to this young person who’s going to develop a whole distinct personality and sense of self.
Memoirs about motherhood address the same issue of how your life changes so fundamentally as a parent. Plenty of female comedians have released memoirs about their careers and parenting, like Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow out of It. In a similar fashion, comedy about being a dad is still very common across television, like George Lopez’s latest show (one of the ultimate dad comedians), Lopez vs. Lopez.
Humorous takes on parenting will always be welcome, and I think the books written for dads about the comedy of parenting can apply to more people than just the prototypical dad. A lot of them can apply to moms, dads, and nonbinary parents. The differences between the literature and parenting books you give to them can simply be a matter of personal taste.
Interrogating The Dad Book Category
Trying to narrow the distinction of dad book can be very frustrating because qualities that we all consider to be normal for dads are extremely dependent on our parents, the culture we grew up in, and how someone feels about the concept of parenting in general.
The category of dad book can mean a lot of different things: parenting guides for the parent who was not pregnant, a practical guide to the various stages of your child’s life, or a large variety of books that a dad might like. For me, the unifying theory is that whoever you buy books for on Father’s Day, you can find many great options outside of the dedicated table in the bookstore. There are also books about non-traditional families and books for people without a father to consider the world outside dad books.