Owen Booth has done something interested with What We’re Teaching Our Sons. The title first suggested that this was a self-help book of some kind, aimed at fathers trying to raise sons in a society and culture that is a veritable mass of mixed signals and messages. Then I saw the endorsement by poet Luke Kennard, saying the book “reduced me to tears of laughter and painful recognition.” Self-help books don’t usually do that.
Intrigued, I bought it and started reading. It took getting through only a few of the short chapters for me to realize that Booth is using the structure of fathers teaching sons (or not teaching them, as the case may be) to examine many of the events, subjects, themes, anxieties, thrills, disasters, and rhythms of everyday life that are our culture today. Booth is British, but what he writes about applies equally to the United States and I suspect most Western countries.
Some of the things being taught to sons are physical: the outdoors, whales, geology sport, mountains, and food, among others. Others are about relationships: women, heartbreak, ex-girlfriends, grandfathers, and teenage girls. There are entries on feelings, like empathy, guilt, crying, romance, nostalgia, and emotional literacy. Or mythical figures like pirates, Vikings, and the Abominable Snowman, and Martians. He includes dangers, like drowning, plane crashes, being struck by lightning, and spiders. And historical events like exploration of the South Pole.
And, yes, all of these subjects can, in their own strange way, affect and characterize the relationships between fathers and sons. In Booth’s hands, one does have to wonder whether it’s the fathers or the sons who are the adults in the room (the mothers usually know). But the book goes beyond whether or not you should teach your sons to climb trees (the answer is yes) to consider what weights modern society adds to what is already not the easiest of relationships and responsibilities.
Booth has experience here, being the father of two sons. He’s a writer and journalist and won the 2015 White Review Short Story Prize. His writings have been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, and literary journals. He and his family live in London.
So if it’s important for your sons to know about gambling, food, books, crime, and glaciers, among a lot of other subjects, What We’re Teaching Our Sons can provide a road map that’s both insightful and wry.