A Reading Life

Gift ideas for that rare dad who reads

By Katherine A. Powers
June 13, 2010

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A few weeks ago one of those tiresome controversies about whether people read or do not read sprung up on the Internet. In this case, the people who supposedly don’t read are men; the people who supposedly believe men don’t read work in publishing; and the people who don’t believe that men don’t read were led by thriller writer and former editor, Jason Pinter, who started the whole thing in the Huffington Post. The entire affair was draining, not least because the example of a book which people in publishing had (mistakenly) thought wouldn’t be read was “A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex” by Chris Jericho, a professional wrestler.

I bring this up because you have exactly one week to get something for Father’s Day for dear old Dad if he still exists, or for yourself if, like me, you enjoy books that men would read if only people would stop insulting them. Let’s begin with history: sports history, in fact. An excellent history of the United States could be written through the prism of baseball. Politics, economics, demographics, business, race and labor relations, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, technology, communications, war, and religion — it’s all reflected in the development of baseball. Howard Bryant’s huge and truly magnificent “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” (Pantheon, $29.95) explores almost every one of those aspects for the decades it covers. It is also, and most importantly, an astute character study and account of the life, career, triumphs, and tribulations of Henry Aaron, one of baseball’s greatest players. If I were somebody’s father, it would be first on my wish list.

Another candidate is Edward Achorn’s “Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had” (Smithsonian, $25.99). It will never again be possible for a pitcher to win 59 games in one major-league season, and it’s nearly as impossible to understand how Charles “Old Hoss’’ Radbourn did it in 1884 in a 112-game season — some of which he missed, the beginning because of a dead arm and, later, because he walked out in a snit.

At 5’9” and 168 pounds, Radbourn was a hard-drinking sourpuss from Illinois who played for the Providence Grays from 1881 to 1885. His record-breaking year was a decisive one for pitchers as a whole, cementing their central role by making throwing overhand legal. But the toll increasingly aggressive pitching took on men’s arms was worsened by teams maintaining pitching rosters of only two men. For a good deal of the 1884 season, injury reduced Providence to one: Radbourn, providing him with the opportunity to take up tenancy in the pitcher’s box. Still, nothing but cussedness and courage can really explain how he pulled off so many wins. He did, of course, benefit from having a hard-playing, talented team behind him, strong drink inside him, and the love of a woman of ill-repute in the shape of Carrie Stanhope, whose story this fine book also covers.

Alchorn has dug deep into newspaper files and other archives, including marvelous photographic collections, to give us a raw and rude picture of baseball’s Old Testament era. He also shows us a vanished America, a time when Providence and Boston were prosperous, pugnacious rivals, their games drawing fans from New Bedford, Fall River, and Worcester; a distant day, too, when sports writing was high-flown and fistic. He is generous with oddities of material detail and ways of life, including stories of atrocious sportsmanship on the part of players and perfidy on that of umpires — who justly feared for their lives.

Funny books about booze, traditional gifts for men, are frequently given, and infrequently read; indeed, their obnoxious jocularity may actually account for some men being put off reading forever. One of the few exceptions is Bernard DeVoto’s classic “The Hour,” first published in 1951 and long out of print. Now, I am delighted to report, it’s back in a tidy little hard-cover volume (Tin House, Books, $16.95) introduced by Daniel Handler (who also writes as “Lemony Snicket”).

Great historian of the American West and editor of Mark Twain’s papers, DeVoto was not reticent in his opinions or timid in style. He was just the man to lay down the law in matters of taste and decorum. (“Whiskey and vermouth cannot meet as friends and the Manhattan is an offense against piety.”) The book is a celebration of good plain bourbon and rye, and of the martini, America’s gifts to the world. It is also a blast of righteousness and wrath against the abominations of rum and sweet drinks (“If the Republic comes crashing down, the ruin will have been wrought by this lust for sweet drinks.”), and the “coy and cute and leering” whimsicality that began to surround drinking and its appurtenances after World War II. the Second World War. The book ends with a paean to the hour — 6 p.m. to be precise — when drinks are served, and to its highest expression, the martini. Strict instructions for its making are given, though with the reassurance that “of men and women alike it requires only intelligence and care — oh, perhaps some additional inborn spiritual fineness, some feeling for artistic form which, if it isn’t genius, will do quite as well.”

Let us conclude with the sort of book that women like to buy for men, specifically, “How to Get Things Really Flat: Enlightenment for Every Man on Ironing, Vacuuming and Other Household Arts” by Andrew Martin (The Experiment, paperback, $14.95). Martin, who is English, is best known as the author of a terrific historical mystery series set in the early 20th century, starring Yorkshire railway man Jim Stringer. (The first is “The Necropolis Railway,” and you can take it from there.) The present book, though provided with a preface to the US edition, won’t really serve much practical — or corrective — purpose for Americans. There are still too many differences between the two countries for that, but so what? The book is filled with historical cleaning lore, self-deprecating reflection, and a loony proselytizing spirit. It is also a very funny personal history. Martin writes fervently of the joys of bringing order to the happy home, of war on the evil dust mite, of the preternatural power of the vacuum-cleaner “crevice tool,” and of all the tricks and tools of the trade: “If you’re going to buy a feather duster — and that’s probably a big ‘if’ in the case of most men — then don’t buy a synthetic one.”

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at