What my father and I learned about each other by reading the same books

“I’ll never forgive you for this,” my dad said to me the night he started reading Wuthering Heights. “It’s just so depressing! Everything’s bleak, they’re all horrible, I’m going to be stuck in a dark cloud all the time until this is over.” While he finished the book of his own free will, it was my fault he was suffering. I’d recommended it to him.

My dad, a fiftysomething hospital administrator from rural Ohio, is a history buff who reads presidential biographies but also has endless opinions on Gilmore Girls. A year ago he dug into my numerous boxes of nineteenth century novels, fell in love with The Picture of Dorian Gray, and hasn’t looked back. Even after his Emily Brontë induced suffering ended with Heathcliff dying “out of nowhere, after all that!” he went on to tackle Middlemarch, and is now in the middle of Daniel Deronda.

This new reading venture of his happened at an interesting time for both of us. When he started reading, I was about to begin writing my master’s dissertation and he was about to send my youngest sibling into her senior year of college. A friend of mine suggested my dad was reading my books to cope with the changes; that I was far away in London and he wanted to feel closer to me. Products of “lace curtain” Irish Catholic repression, neither of us would dare acknowledge such sentimentality, even to ourselves. Whatever the reason, he started to read.

My own penchant for the Victorians started when I was about 9, and found a copy of Little Women lying around the house. I was an avid reader who sought stories as an escape from the drudgery of living in the middle of nowhere, meaning I was not deterred by the novel’s length or age. After blazing through it so many times the cover fell off, my parents gave me a Jane Austen omnibus thinking maybe I’d like it, and that settled things. A stereotype I would be: the preppy Midwestern girl who corrected her AP English teacher on the Bennet sisters’ ages. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I was connecting with the women and girls in those old books. Stories about women, written by women, for other women to read; they filled a hole in me that my brother’s fantasy novels never did. From there I found I liked the style enough to expand to Dickens and Trollope and Wilde. I’ve never looked back.

My parents supplied me endless books growing up and went on to support me through two English degrees. My dad loves period dramas as much, if not more than my mom, and I’d usually come home from college with a fresh BBC Masterpiece Theatre adaptation for them; we still quote the 2005 Bleak House series (“Shake me up, Judy!”) two years after watching it. So while I wasn’t shocked to hear Dad was reading Oscar Wilde I was pleasantly surprised to hear how deeply he appreciated it. As he blazed on through more classics I became fascinated by our differing reactions. Why is it that my young woman’s responses are stark and clinical compared to my middle-aged father’s emotional roller coasters?

Wuthering Heights is the most extreme example thus far. I love that book. I see it as a realistic depiction of the destruction caused by self-centered people who never learned to put their own desires into wider perspective. I see it as a lesson on learning from previous generations’ mistakes. While my dad does not disagree with me, he also doesn’t love the novel in the way that I do. “I find that I really chafe whenever I encounter entitlement. Wuthering was filled with sadness . . . being created out of entitlement,” he said. “I think also that you are younger than me, that I’ve had more life experience than you. You can afford to be clinical in your assessment. I see my own experiences at play in those pages.” We’ve found this time and time again: same book, completely different reactions. In seeing how my father responds to these stories I love, I’m learning so much about him. Thanks to literature we’re sharing a world that perhaps we never would have, and learning about each other’s perspectives in a way that is entirely new.

While I may be crossing the ocean, there is something comforting about the idea that somewhere in Ohio my dad is reading the words to my favorite books. And when he puts that novel down, he can call me up, and we can talk about it.

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