You Should Read This Book

May I recommend a good book?

In the summer before the fall when my Knucklehead was born, just before I entered nursing school, I was working in a bookstore. Passing by one of the tables of remaindered books, I noticed a small, slim hardcover, which at first glance I took to be a journal, much like the kind I kept in a back pocket in those days. But embossed on the front cover was the word Amador followed underneath by, “… in which a father addresses his son on questions of ethics–that is, the options and values of freedom–and attempts to show him how to have a good life….” The author was Fernando Savater, and though I couldn’t have known it at the time, this book would eventually lead to the blog you’re reading now.

I read the first two paragraphs and snapped the book shut. I didn’t want to read any more, not there in the store, not at work. I wanted to wait until I got home where it was quiet and I could give Professor Savater my full attention. It’s that kind of book.

Fernando Savater is a Spanish intellectual, writer, activist, and teacher. He spent ten years as a professor of Ethics at the University of the Basque Country, and is currently a Philosophy professor at Complutense University of Madrid, one of the oldest universities in the world, and among Spain’s finest. Amador is simply a letter from a father to his fifteen-year-old son, introducing him to ethical thought, and inviting him to a full and deliberate life. And though it’s a long letter, it makes for a short book – under 200 pages, easily read in a single sitting if you wish, but sliced into short chapters that are easy to digest.

Two things struck me in even the first pages of Amador, two ideas that helped me to decide the type of father I wanted to become.

The first is found in the tone of the letter. Throughout this book, Savater’s warmth and affection for his Amador radiates, as does his respect for the man his son is becoming. Absent from the book are the words, “You must,” replaced by honest advice about how his son may find his own way. Savater neither preaches nor condescends. Instead, he offers counsel on how his son might approach his life with intention, not because the father demands it, but because the father wants his son to enjoy the full fruits of a rich life. All written in direct, simple prose that neither taxes a teenager’s attention nor insults it. The trust, the confidence that Savater places in Amador’s judgment is evident even in the prologue:

And so, all I am going to tell you in the following pages is not much more than repeating that one piece of advice over and over again: Keep your nerve! Have confidence! Not in me, not in wise men, even truly wise men, not in mayors, not in priests, not in the police. Not in gods, not in devils, not in machines, not in flags. Keep your nerve, have confidence in your own self. In your intelligence which will enable you to become better than you presently are; in your love instincts, which will open you up to loving companions. (pp. 6-7)

Reading this, as a thirty-two year old man about to become a father for the first time, the words frightened me. They were a challenge to me. A challenge to raise a child I could someday  entrust with that advice. How dare Savater write these words to a teenager? How dare I? The idea of it terrified and exhilarated me. The reality of what I was embarking on – the ethical rearing of another human being – was beginning to set in.

The second idea that struck me about the book was the idea that a father would so deliberately teach ethics to his son. The notion that a father would bring the same attention to philosophy that others would bring to auto repair or throwing a spiral intrigued me. I had never before heard other parents discuss teaching ethics to their children. Rules, yes. Respect for authority, yes, but not ethics. Not a template for making ethical decisions, or why that’s the best way to live, as Savater explains to his son in these pages.

It was something I’d thought about for a long time, but no one else I knew was talking about it. It’s not really something you feel you can bring up with the other couples at the childbirth classes, or with your pediatrician, or the instructor at the baby Gymboree. We’re told to have these discussions with clergy, but unless you catch a sharp one, it’s like asking an insurance agent how you should plan for your future. But here was someone who took ethics as seriously as I did. And who loved his son enough to take the trouble to put his mind and his heart on the page, meeting his son at the teenage level instead of demanding he first learn the required tenets and vocabulary. But why write? Again, from the prologue:

And so it has occurred to me to write down some of those things I wished to tell you from time to time, not knowing how to, not daring to. When a father starts playing philosopher, you have to look him in the eye, put on a somewhat attentive face, your mind fixed on the moment of liberation when you can rush off to television. But a book–a book you can read whenever you want, at odd moments, and you don’t have to treat it with any respect. You can yawn while you are turning the pages, or laugh if you feel like it. You have complete freedom. Since much of what I am going to say to you has a great deal to do with freedom, it’s much better that you read it than hear it in the form of a sermon. (pp. 3-4)

Amador is a beautiful, highly readable, delightful introduction to ethics and living a good life (the version I own, and which the link above will take you to, has been translated from Spanish by Alastair Reid*). At times it is like eavesdropping on a heart-to-heart talk from father to son (or mother to son, or father to daughter, or grandmother… you get the idea. Saveter frequently points out that these lessons are not confined to the masculine, something I’ve tried to get across in my own writing as well). At times it is like sitting in an outdoor café in Madrid, discussing the joys and the challenges of life over espresso with an amiable professor. As The Knucklehead was growing up, I’d pull it off the shelf every now and then as if visiting with an old friend. When my own son turned fifteen, I gave him a copy of his own.

And though I don’t wish to burden Professor Savater with this, you might see where Amador led to the blog you have before you. During the active business of raising The Knucklehead, I never seemed to find the time or energy to do much writing, beyond the odd journaling I would sometimes do, more as therapy than anything else. But it was always in the back of my mind to put my ideas in writing where my son could have access. So that he wouldn’t have to worry about keeping an attentive face when his well-meaning, but occasionally ridiculous papa starts playing philosopher. So he can read whenever he wants, at odd moments. Now, or for when he needs it.

You should read this book. This book is a friend.


*This version is also available in e-reader form.

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