Summer Reading, Part I: Adventurous Reading for Fathers and Sons

June 16, 2010 — Here's a nice Father's Day gift idea: A book Dad can read with his children.

A U.Va. Today query about summer reading yielded several suggestions of books that University of Virginia faculty fathers are reading with their sons. Adventure abounds, and the Hardy Boys and "Treasure Island" still compete with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books in that arena.

Even taking a look in one's own backyard can reveal adventures – in the world of nature.

Gregory Fairchild, executive director of the Tayloe Murphy Center and associate professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business, is reading well-known biologist E.O. Wilson's first novel, "Anthill," with his 9-year-old son.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on Gregory Fairchild's recommended reading:

This is no simple picture book, however. It brings a new perspective to the coming-of-age story, he said, adding that it has been described as "To Kill a Mockingbird" for naturalists. "It's inspirational," he said.

"Anthill" tells the story of a teen-aged boy who gets absorbed in the natural setting of a lake near where he lives in Alabama, particularly the ant colonies. He grows up to become a naturalist and a lawyer. There's a story within a story that develops over the course of the novel.

Fairchild's son reads one or two chapters a day, writes down any words he doesn't know, and then he and his father talk about the book.

"When you're young, choosing a career is a mystery," Fairchild said. "I wanted my son to realize you can have a passion for something and build a career out of it. I wanted him to get the message that a person could choose to ... be academic and involved in social change."

English professor Victor Luftig and his 7-year-old son are deep into the adventures of the Hardy Boys. They just finished "The Secret of the Caves," the seventh in the series, which was first published in 1929. Next up is "The Mystery of Cabin Island."

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on Victor Luftig's recommended reading:

"With me, he's happy to read the Hardy Boys, which I read when I was a kid. It's one of my first happy recollections," said Luftig, who directs the Center for the Liberal Arts. They're reading the series in order. Luftig said he hopes they get through No. 13 over the summer, which the family spends in Vermont.

Assistant professor Benjamin Cohen, in the Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology and Society, said he and his 8-year-old son enjoyed reading "Treasure Island" together, which Cohen chose from the set of classics on their bookshelves,

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on Benjamin Cohen's recommended reading:

Youngsters have a multimedia experience with stories nowadays, Cohen said. For example, his son listens to the audio books, reads the books on paper and then watches the movies (for instance, the final Harry Potter book will be released onscreen in two films in November and next summer).

The books are better, his son always says, according to Cohen, who hopes that bodes well for continued reading.

Depending on Dad's interests, these faculty members had some other titles to suggest – not necessarily from the children's book list.

Fairchild just finished another book that sounds like it should be a children's title, but is not – "Little Bee" by Christopher Cleave. A British married couple, who are both editors, take a vacation to Nigeria, attempting to revive their lackluster relationship, and meet a young Nigerian woman, who ends up coming to visit them at home.

"This is an emotional thriller," Fairchild said. "If Achebe's classic, 'Things Fall Apart,' was about what happens when European colonists arrive in Nigeria, this book engages us in what happens when post-colonial refugees arrive in Europe."

In a book group with other Darden faculty members, Fairchild suggested a title he regularly teaches, "The Hidden Cost of Being African-American," by Thomas Shapiro, which came out in 2005.

"This is an eye-opening book about the importance of wealth in America – as opposed to income – who has it and how it contributes to inequality," Fairchild said. He has shared it with his business students because they are less aware of how advantaged they are, he said.

Rather than just presenting data, the author tells individuals' stories, as well, some of whom work side by side in the same office, by talking about their income and their wealth – the assets they do or do not have – and how that has made sometimes transformative differences in their lives, Fairchild said.

Some of the books Luftig recommends tell how individuals' lives have been changed through their adventures.

For Luftig, "one of the things summer is about is catching up on the books people have given you, and it's been a good year," he said.

"My colleague Mark Edmundson gave me a new book of his called 'The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll,' a memoir.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on Mark Edmundson's recommended reading:

"What could be better for summer than wisdom from rock and roll?" Luftig said. It seemed a natural follow-up to the University Seminar that fellow English professor Steve Arata and he taught this past semester, "Bruce Springsteen's America."

Edmundson's book recounts his adventures as a roadie working for some of the great bands of the era, like The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and the Allman Brothers, and what he learned after graduating from college that turned him toward becoming a college professor.

Recently, Luftig received a book in the mail from a former U.Va. student that happens to be appropriate for the summer sports season.

"Dave Jamieson, who has become a terrific journalist, sent me his new book, 'Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.' I'm a big baseball fan, and he knows that."

He said the author's biographical note on the book jacket is the best he's read in a long time: "He lives in Washington, D.C. with a closetful of worthless baseball cards, all of them in excellent condition."

Luftig also recommends another memoir, a seagoing adventure, "Sailing for Home," written by an Irish friend, Theo Dorgan. "He's a poet and a very visible figure in Ireland. He's on the radio and TV all the time," Luftig said of Dorgan.

It's about his journey from the Caribbean to Cork, where he's from in Ireland. Dorgan sailed across the Atlantic with three old salts; he was the novice.

"My wife read it a few years ago, and she said it was gripping," Luftig said.

Cohen just read a similarly gripping novel set against the backdrop of Philippe Petit's spectacular tightrope walk between the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York City in the summer of 1974. Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin" comprises related stories that take place on the same day. Through the characters' stories, the troubling issues of the 1970s unfold.

Cohen, whose academic work focuses on the history of science and environmentalism, said reading fiction "resets him" for going back to reading his work-related topics by immersing him in a different world he's not familiar with or pulling him out of his niche to look at the wider world.

The Books

"Little Bee" by Christopher Cleave
"Sailing for Home" by Theo Dorgan
"The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll" by Mark Edmundson
"Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession" by Dave Jamieson
"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann
"The Hidden Cost of Being African-American" by Thomas Shapiro
"Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson
"Anthill" by E.O. Wilson