Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Reading tips for expectant dads

You should (very soon) be hearing rather less from me on the blog over the next four weeks. The happy event today of the arrival of Sonny Patrick Katwala early this afternoon means that I am away from the office on paternity leave.

That should be an intense and enjoyable period. But that also takes a day or two to kick in. With mother and baby in hospital for a couple of nights, and having come home to swap over with grandparents and put two slightly older children in bed, I am currently on paternity leave without any parenting to do until the morning.

So I've made a few phone calls and texts, got some photos up on Facebook and all of that. But there remains a few minutes for one short public service announcement. For one thing that occurred to me in the last 24 hours is that, however much they tell us what to read at the beach and during the Turkey hangover, the books sections of the newspapers fall short on one rather specific service. What should the dad-to-be be reading in the pre-delivery suite?

At the back of the mind is always the nagging thought that this might be the very moment to crack Middlemarch. However tempting, this is even dafter than the idea of taking Wittgenstein along on a beach holiday on the off-chance. What is wanted is something light and dip-in-and out-able. No doubt there are classics which would work great: Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, say, or Jane Austen. And a little bit of intellectual respectability sounds fine: it is best kept pretty middlebrow. And you need to pick your way carefully through the last couple of Booker shortlists. Save JM Coetzee for another time. This is not the moment for a stark portrayal of man's inhumanity to man.

So let the guard down a little here. What is needed is something enjoyable, short, dip in and out-able. And life-affirming.

(One obvious caveat: this depends on the birthplan. This may all be somewhat more relevant where an epidural is involved. Still, very tiny babies and mums who have given birth do often sleep a fair bit in the first couple of days. You might want to read something. If you've thoughtfully supplied a couple of mindless women's glossies for your partner, you will also have a chance to learn a few things you should know. But you might want something else after 45 minutes of that. Once everyone gets home, many of us struggle to know what day it is, so it might be the last chance you get for some time).

Anyway, here's what worked for me after three runs at this. (And I'm pretty sure that's all folks).

First baby: new dad-to-be is naturally both clueless and mildly terrified. Baby names book still there too. Much UN-style negotiating ahead, though search for consensus is advisable if partner is a strong advocate of the school of thought that actually giving birth to the baby is trumps. The broader plan is to swot up on "What to expect: the first year" as if its a finals exam. But too much advice and information: no idea what will be relevant.

Fortunately, Nick Hornby to the rescue. In this case, A Long Way Down. The characters all begin off suicidal but was bound to be broadly life-affirming by the end. Hornby is light, engaging, thought-provoking at times, and the writing has much more craft in its simplicity than his critics acknowledge. So I say that Nick Hornby is a good thing to have with you in the delivery suite. Perhaps especially High Fidelity or About A Boy for the terrified male first time parent trying to grow up overnight. I had Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, which was short, pacy and fun, though perhaps a questionable choice of subject.

Second baby: Know more about what is going on this time. Have Michael Palin's diaries out of the local library. Am in no way a Python expert but it doesn't matter. Diaries are also spot on in these circumstances. Michael Palin especially may have the edge on Alan Clark. Ishiguru's Never Let Me Go was around too: I found it stunning. Was that the occasion? Baby gets a name after two or three days. (Name problem this time is that nothing that was in the running and not chosen last time seems to work now. But those were the names we liked. Suits him fine after a few days).

Third baby: Today, it was Jason Cowley's new The Last Game, in which a good memoir of his father and childhood are mixed into what happened to football after 1989 and the season of Hillsborough. OK, I've stuck a bit close to Hornby territory and fancied it after banging on about how football has changed, but the book doesn't depend at all on being a football obsessive.

The tone and - as it turned out - the length, were spot on for the occasion.

If any of us is naturally going to feel warmer towards books read at these particular moments than we might at other times, it is worth remembering that the point of books for most of us is to enjoy them as readers, and not necessarily or always as critics.

Over the next few weeks, I don't particularly expect to be extending the reading list too much.

But ideas as to what to read when you can't back to sleep after being woken at 4am might be another useful category if anybody wishes to attempt it.


Mil said...

Anything by Paulo Coelho should do the trick. Except, perhaps, "Veronika Decides to Die", which is too tightly plotted and rather uncharacteristic. He's the sort of writer you can only read when you're in the mood to be both madrugador and transcendental. Deep 4am thoughts and all on life and the universe is really what I mean. Congratulations, by the way! (I only managed three ...)

Stuart White said...

Sunder: congratulations! When Kathy, my wife, went into the labour ward (December 5, 2003) I sat with her reading Julian Le Grand's book on motivation and public policy, working out which passages I could use for an Oxford admissions interview. When you stop to think about it, my wife puts up with rather a lot....

Calix said...

If you want an entertaining read with the edge of meta-narrative try Calvino's 'If On a Winter's Night a Traveller'. This is a book focussed on the reader who starts a book only to be frustrated when it ends after one chapter. It literally reflects stopping and starting so may be perfect!

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks. Good tips - except Stuart's of course.

Having read the Jason Cowley book yesterday, today was reading Charles Nicholl's The Lodger (where he digs up previously unknown facts about Shakespeare's life from a trivial court case). Nicholl's book "The Reckoning" about the death of Christopher Marlowe, using similar techniques, is one of the most brilliant non-fiction books I have read. It involves an astonishing amount of research but reads like a detective story.

But I didn't make much progress with it. It isn't massively complicated, but it might need a tiny bit more concentration. And - absurdly - the bedside TV had the internet on it with a mini-keyboard in the remote control. (Next Left, though, is barred as it seems to be a set of approved/classified sites).