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Father to Son: For Life’s Battles, No Better Armament than Books

Edward Nawotka By Edward Nawotka Published on May 23, 2016
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By Edward Nawotka

The first “adult” book I was ever given by my father was not what you would typically give to an 8-year-old: a biography of "The Desert Fox,” Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Why? One of the few TV shows I was allowed to watch as a child was the Lawrence Olivier-narrated BBC series The World at War. My favorite episode was the one depicting the Battle of El Alamein, the turning point of the North Africa campaign, a bloody tank battle in which the Allies routed Rommel’s Panzers. Rommel, who himself was battling illness, nevertheless managed to maintain dignity in defeat and — after Hitler ordered him not to retreat — proved resilient, slipping away to fight another day.

I think something in my pre-pubescent psyche identified with the vision of Rommel, a stoic figure frozen in time astride an armored half-track, gazing through a pair of dusty binoculars at death in the distance. Maybe this early fatalism stirred my blood? Montgomery, the English general opposing Rommel at El Alamein, never interested me. He always looked so smug, which was somehow a worse crime than Rommel’s obvious arrogance.

I suspect this early fascination with Rommel had something to do with my mother, a woman who spent years of my childhood hospitalized with a said-to-be-terminal illness (her amazing doctors improbably kept her alive into her 70s). Bedridden for long periods of her life, she was an avid reader of anything that would transport her from a body that offered her nothing but persistent pain. Histories of the Civil War were her favorite distraction and over time she too came to admire another proud general who managed to maintain his dignity in defeat: Robert E. Lee. For the record, my mother favored Bruce Catton over Shelby Foote, and for years I carried with me her copy of The Coming Fury, the first in Catton’s monumental three-volume history of the war.

Still, in the long term, it was very much my father who shaped my literary tastes. A Lieutenant Colonel in the army reserves, my father was fond of telling dramatic stories about his hedonistic 20s spent on army bases in northern California during the Vietnam War. At home in Detroit, a place to which he’d begrudgingly returned to take care of his mother after his father died, I remember that the shower stall in his private bathroom was filled with teetering piles of anonymous-looking volumes of military intelligence that he studied with the intent of eventually pursuing a promotion. There were a few paperback novels there too: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk.

It should come as no surprise by this point that war stories were very much a part of my upbringing. It should also come at no surprise at this point when I reveal that, largely as a result of my mother’s hospitalization, I was subsequently educated — from the age of 6 or so — at a series of Catholic military boarding schools. There, we read what all children read for pleasure: Hardy Boys mysteries, Agatha Christie, etc… But back home, the fare on offer was meant to be both challenging and edifying. As such, my parents subscribed not only to the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Franklin Library (a higher-brow version of Book-of-the-Month Club) and the even-higher-brow Nobel Prize Library — a gorgeous set of books bound in blue leather and gilt that featured extracts of the works of every winner of the august award.

It has been the latter two collections that have had the greatest impact on me, starting the moment when faced with picking two books to write about for my 8th-grade graduation from military school: my father made the selection for me, pulling down from the high shelf Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal anti-war novel about the firebombing of Dresden, and A Bell for Adano, John Hersey’s simplistic, moralistic, and — likely — propagandistic story about a well-intentioned, do-gooder American soldier in Sicily during WWII (the book won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for fiction).

This was my father’s subtle way of introducing me to a broader world of books and showing me how the same event with the same protagonists (Americans in World War II, in this instance) can be depicted very differently. It was his own game of “compare and contrast.”

The same happened before I went off to boarding school for my freshman year of high school, when my father gave me a pair of books that would serve as competing meta-commentaries on life: Robert Heinlein’s trippy, hippy science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, about a man raised by Martians trying to make sense of (and love to) the world, and Ayn Rand’s bloodless, ideological doorstop Atlas Shrugged. While I adored the Heinlein (Grokking is like sex, but better!), the Rand was just too intimidating to tackle. So, fearing my education was still incomplete, my father took it upon himself — on the night of my high school graduation no less — to summarize the novel for me, consuming nearly a full hour in reading aloud the most famous passage from the book: the Francisco d’Anconia speech that begins, “So you think that money is the root of all evil?…Have you ever asked what is the root of money?”

To this day, my father — now a late septuagenarian — denies this ever happened. But I remember, because in the moment he sat me down to lecture me, I was trying to leave for a party where I planned to finally kiss the high school crush who had eluded me for four years…

Is it then any wonder then that I went off to college to study philosophy and literature in Boston — leading to my eventual career as a journalist — and not, as my parents had hoped, to start a military career at West Point? Though, as it happens, I was eventually late to my college graduation ceremony after losing myself in a copy of Tim O’Brien’s extraordinary story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried…

In the many intervening years since, I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to read a great many books, write about a great many books and travel extensively. I have my father to thank for instilling in me that curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. Also, he gave me a credit card when I was a teenager with the strict rule that I could use it only for emergencies — or for shopping in bookstores.

Now, that I have grown older and am in the midst of raising a child of my own, I find myself frequently referring to yet another book my father gifted me as I was getting a divorce, another time of transition. Unsurprisingly, it is by military man, a general, and perhaps the wisest of all: Marcus Aurelius.

Meditations may very well be the ultimate “man’s man” book. The ideas expressed there are sensitive but rigorous, tender but strong, generous but economical. The edition I have is a beautiful slip-cased edition with gilt edges from the Folio Society in the U.K. It is the mirror of a copy that my father keeps on his own nightstand at home. Unsurprisingly, in Meditations, Aurelius notes that he was greatly influenced by a man he calls his “real father” — his paternal grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus — whom he praises for having embodied the virtues of humility, compassion and kindness. I see those qualities in my own father too.

Of course, the message of my father having given me Meditations when he did is implicit: be stoic in the face of life’s many challenges, for there will be many and they will be unrelenting. But there is another message too: a validation of literature and the imagination’s power to beat back the dark, as well as an insistence on seeking joy even in the midst of this struggle. Or, as Aurelius puts it ever so succinctly, serving up a precursor to both Rand and Heinlein in a single statement: “Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness.”

It is a simple, beautiful lesson that I as a father hope to impart to my daughter in time. For what is being a father if not equipping your child to enter the world and continue on without you?

And what better armament for life’s battles than books?

I love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. And thanks.

    American journalist, editor, traveler, and believer in the power of books to change the world.


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