Father’s Day book buying: an adventure story

Hector Tobar’s bookshelf
Hector Tobar’s bookshelf has room for Father’s Day gifts.
(Hector Tobar / Los Angeles Times)

Buying anyone a book as a gift can be a potentially fraught experience, but it’s especially difficult to get your dad something.

I’ll never forget the time my father opened a package containing Erik Larson’s excellent “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.” He’s a history buff, and it seemed a safe choice. But as soon as he saw it he said: “I have this already. You gave me this same book last year!”


Trying to play it safe with dad got me in trouble. But books still seem like the ideal Father’s Day gift to me. They’re bulky, for starters, and there’s something weighty (pun intended) about giving dad a hefty book to hold — as if it were the paper equivalent of a tool box. One day my own three kids will be old enough and have enough disposable income to buy me a book. When they, or any other kids do, I’d give them the following book-buying advice.


1. Embrace your father’s inner geek. I’m a map geek. If my kids pooled their money together and bought me a new world atlas, or any of the many great atlases in the National Geographic collection, I’d be a happy man. The next, 10th edition of “The National Geographic Atlas of the World” doesn’t come out until September unfortunately (Christmas, please!), but there is a new “Oxford Atlas of the World” out. If I got mine, the first thing I’d do is go to the page for Africa and look for South Sudan. (Like I said, I’m a map geek.)

2. Anything encyclopedic, or almanaclike, that’s related to dad’s tastes. I’m a sucker for history reference books, including tomes like “The Readers Companion to American History” with its entries on topics as obscure and essential as the “Know Nothings” and the Missouri Compromise. But that’s just me. I have a buddy who is a father of two whose tastes are different. Even though he’s 50-ish, he still loves comic books. The newly revised “Marvel Encyclopedia” from DK Adult, which profiles more than 1,200 Marvel characters, would be a great choice for him.

3. Adventure is often popular with dads. In years past, Jon Krakaur’s Mount Everest epic “Into Thin Air” was a can’t-miss choice, as were books on the Shackleton Antartica expedition, and quirky memoirs such as the bird-hunting classic “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession,” by Mark Obmascik. One of my recent favorites is the 2012 “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan, about the Seattle photographer who documented early 20th century Native American life. This year, we have “Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World” by Matthew Goodman, from Ballantine Books. And if espionage is more your dad’s taste, there’s “Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story” by Jack Devine, from Sarah Crichton Books.

4. Anything with a personal touch. My kids know my book haunts: the independent bookstores Vroman’s, Skylight, Stories and, most recently, Seite Books in East Los Angeles. At all those places there are booksellers who are very knowledgeable about the books on offer. At Seite, anything from the small but excellent fiction shelves would make me very happy. Tell your local bookseller your dad’s tastes — at Vroman’s, there’s always a kind gentleman roaming the literature shelves — and they’re sure to have a surprising and likely spot-on and unique recommendation for you.


Above all, having your child give you a book with a story attached is bound to lift any father’s spirits. If you deliver a book saying, “Dad, I gave you this book because I read it and I know you’ll like it,” you stand a good chance of success.