My father, a man with a degree in physics and an impressive resume of important sounding acronyms, does not really read.

As an avid reader who grew up in a house full of crowded bookshelves, it has taken me several years to recognize this, though I still have not fully accepted it. The worn paperbacks that constitute the majority of my parent’s library are thin sci-fi and spy thrillers, which I eventually realized had not been read for years.

He used to travel for work, taking several business magazines with him on flights in a large leather briefcase. The first books I got for him were business related – The Vest Pocket MBA or similar – which seemed more thoughtful and more useful than a tie or a humorous magnetic desk toy. They sat on his desk in the study, but never made it into that briefcase.

I started working at a bookstore in university, and quickly became one of those people who always give books as gifts, proud of what I perceived as a talent to choose titles that fit individuals perfectly, even if their literary taste was not my own.

When I gave my father a lovely, slim edition of the Tao Te Ching for Christmas, it sat on his bedside table for about a year. When I commented on his apparent lack of progress, he huffily said he was reading it, taking his time because he wanted to fully absorb it. Of my subsequent gifts, he has always diligently read them, but resentfully, like a child being forced to do homework. The only book he seemed to fully enjoy was something on the history of beer.

I tried to branch out, getting him a Jamie Oliver cookbook, as he had recently taken on most of the household cooking, and my mother had suggested that he could perhaps do with some assistance finding healthier recipes. While he did prepare one of Jamie’s dishes, he has since declared that he doesn’t like following recipes and is more of an intuitive cook.

Because, I was forced to acknowledge, he does not like to read.

I still buy him books. Now it is more in a spirit of determination, with the dubious goal of improvement. I know he will at least try to read whatever I give him out of goodwill, however frustrating or tedious he might find it, so I choose titles that, I hope, make him think. It is terribly patronizing, but I don’t want a father who spends his free time playing with some sort of electronic sudoku palm pilot; I need to imagine him as someone more engaged with the world.

There are plenty of people who say, without qualm, “I’m not really a reader.” They watch the news, read magazines, spend vast quantities of time on the internet reading and writing. They might grab a mystery at the airport, or settle down with a World War II history on vacation, but happily refuse to read Middlemarch or War and Peace, because, after all, what does it have to do with them?

I judge these people, just like I judge my father. It is condescending. I am condescending. But I am not a relativist – some things are good and important and some things are bad and trivial. Reading is important. Our entire civilization, flawed as it is, is built on the foundation of written language, and the ability to preserve and share knowledge, whether pragmatic and scientific or ideological and imaginative. It is what makes us human, instead of just another bunch of monkeys. We have a responsibility to remain involved in that community of ideas, the collective consciousness contained in everything we take the time to write down.

I make my father read, because otherwise he would shut himself out. And he wouldn’t even notice.

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KATHERINE WOOTTON is a freelance writer and reviewer living in London, UK. Her work has appeared in the Quill & Quire, National Post, Women's Post, and online at the literateur.com, Danforth Review, and blogTO.com. She also satisfies her creative urge by working in theatre and television production. You can read her blog at unsolicitedopinion.wordpress.com

21 responses to “My Father Doesn’t Read”

  1. Slade Ham says:

    I really don’t understand aliterate people. I have a friend that reads nothing. NOTHING. At all. He would not read street signs if didn’t have to. I can’t imagine living in a world like that.

    Good for you though, for continuiong to feed him books. Perhaps he’ll give in one day and fall in love.

  2. Slade Ham says:

    Continuiong. Yes, please continuio. Ha ha. My fingers feel fat today.

  3. Alison Aucoin says:

    PLEASE tell me that TNB counts as reading. Does it help that I often read the essays on my laptop in bed? Okay, how about I’m self employed and a single mom of a two year old and somehow I can’t seem to keep my brain focused long enough for a novel or big fat non-fiction? Maybe not. Ack, I’m a non reader like MY dad! Somebody start a support group for otherwise intelligent and intellectually curious non readers ASAP! (Meetings should be held in a library or good independent bookstore if at all possible.)

  4. Lorna says:

    I gave my mother a book for Christmas one year and she sent it back to me with nice little note saying “it wasn’t her type of book”. It kind of broke my heart a lit…..lot. No more books as gifts to mother from me. The funny thing is the next year she bought me a book the for Christmas; one that I would like to read but it still sits there on the bookshelf in resentment.

    • Judy Prince says:

      I’m smacking your mom in the forehead, oh cavity-less Lorna! What a sad/silly note she wrote you! No wonder your resentment. A trip together to a delicious bookstore may yield co-understandings for you. And then a little lunch in a small cozy place…..perfect day out!

      • Lorna says:

        It’s all good Judy. Lesson learned. Mom doesn’t live near enough to wonder around the bookstore and have lunch with. But my daughter and I, we do this at least once a month or so. What lacks in one area is multiplied 10x in another.

  5. JB says:

    I have a hard time judging old guys (assuming your dad is old) who don’t like to do certain things anymore. Even reading. I give them a break.

    Interesting thing you mentioned about gifting books. I never read books people give me as gifts. Same things happen when I give people books as gifts. They don’t read them.

  6. Slade – I never know what to say to non-readers, I’m always struck by a kind of horrified pity.

    Alison – but you *like* reading, right? Maybe you have time for a novella or some poetry here and there, a dip into a collection of essays? I think everyone has periods of mental fatigue, where a big chunk of literature is just too daunting and cruising the blogs is more mentally engaging than daytime tv.

    Lorna – That’s terrible! Was she hoping for some bath salts or something? Don’t let it spoil your reading of your book, though – it’s not the author’s fault, right?

  7. I wonder if there is any way your pops is gonna read this. Would be interesting to get his reaction. Granted he doesn’t throw a book at you. Heh. Nice post.

  8. Irene Zion says:


    Okay, here’s the thing. I’m old too. I love to read. I read all the time. People get to do what they want to do when they’re old, if they’re lucky. Cut your dad some slack. He’s earned the right to do what he wants in his own time without your judgement and harassment.

    I like you. I do, and I know you mean well, truly from your heart.
    but this time,
    you’re being a snotty nosed know-it-all kid,
    he’s your dad,
    he deserves your respect
    for exactly who he is,
    not for who you want him to be.
    I don’t want to hurt your feelings here, really, but…
    This one time, you’re wrong.

  9. Marni Grossman says:

    My father claims that his favorite book is “Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce. This is because he is a pretentious, pretentious man.

    Meanwhile, he hasn’t read a novel since the late ’90s. Not because he doesn’t enjoy reading but because he works 16-hour days and overindulges on newspapers and law journals. That said, I got very excited last year when he went on a long plane ride and announced that he was going to read a novel. I picked out something wonderful for him and waited, with bated breath, for the report. Which never came. Because he chose to read a novel about Mozart instead. Sigh.

    Parents. So ungrateful.

    Really enjoyed this! Welcome to the family!

  10. Judy Prince says:

    Katherine, your brain-dueling duo gave much to think about. This two-sentence part had my extreme attention; at first for recognition of frustration, and then for a nice fat laugh: “Of my subsequent gifts, he has always diligently read them, but resentfully, like a child being forced to do homework. The only book he seemed to fully enjoy was something on the history of beer.”

    I had a post-uni roommate for whom giving articles, collages, and short poems was like breathing. Often I resented it, yet her constant enthusiastic *engagement* (love your word choice!) compelled my reading. I also loathed most novels (yes, me an English Lit and Lang major!) but, again, her engagement rather unfurled me in our analysing the characters’ wants, choices, wisdoms. I never told her what I liked to read; she never asked. Her always over-spilling joy and serious connection to LIFE in all her querying won me over to much I’d never have known on my own. Thank you for this important little read, Katherine!

  11. Simon Smithson says:

    People who don’t read weird me out. And I’ll happily say so (sorry Irene!).

    • Irene Zion says:

      Hey Simon!
      I read plenty. I’m always reading. I probably read too much.
      I can’t weird you out for not reading, cause I don’t not read.

  12. Mary says:

    Ah! I am one of those people who give books all the time, too. But I’ve started to realize I’m not that great at picking the best book for an individual. Instead, I give copies of my favorite books to my Dad because we’ve always had reading in common, and I try hard not to give books to everyone else… although it’s tempting as I typically can’t think of anything better to give anyone. Still, I don’t want Christmas to be so predictable … “Mary’s going to give everyone books they won’t like … again.”

  13. Matt says:

    Like Justin and Irene, I have a certain amount of empathy for persons who’ve reached a respectable age and have decided they no longer want to do something–even if I don’t understand the particular impulse to give up reading, book junkie that I am.

    I do not, however, have any empathy for adolescents and young people who choose not to read, especially because they find it “boring”….and especially none for those who only read Twilight and its ilk.

    Here’s a thought: ever try coercing your dad into a two person reading group, just you and him? Pick something he likes–maybe one of those pulp novels on his shelf, some of them are quite good–and get together once or twice a month to chat about it. He could read it in smaller sections, so he wouldn’t feel obligated to go through the whole thing at once.

  14. Richard Cox says:

    I always give books to people who read them. Sometimes I give books to people who probably won’t read them but I feel like it’s worth a try.

    I think it’s great that you keep trying. He probably enjoys that you do so. There’s more to gift giving than just the simple usage of the gift.

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