Read Any Good Books Lately? Adm. Jim Stavridis (ret.) Has Some Suggestions


When I arrived at European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2008, Gen. Bantz Craddock was wrapping up his time as the European Commander. Then, in 2009, Adm. Jim Stavridis took over. After his arrival, some immediate and interesting changes occurred. To begin, Stavridis sent a note to the staff listing over 30 books — from Russian history to the Balkans conflict — for the staff to read, think about and debate. It was the first salvo in a series of blogs and e-mails that he would use to tell the staff what he was reading and, more importantly, where his head was. A few weeks later, books in his reading list showed up on shelves in directorates’ offices, in the base library, and always in his talks he gave when he was in town.

Then, after a few months, Stavridis began inviting authors to give talks at the command: people like Dave Kilcullen on his book The Accidental Guerilla and the classical historian Barry Strauss on his book The Battle of Salamis. No doubt about it, it was an intellectually stimulating place to work.

Now Stavridis is out of uniform, but ever the voracious reader and advocate for self-improvement, he has co-authored a book titled The Leader’s Bookshelf, for which he interviewed 200 general officers and flag officers about their reading habits and their favorite books. And from those interviews he and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, came up with a list of 50 books that provide lessons for leaders today. I had the chance to chat with Admiral Stavridis about what he is reading, the health of our military reading culture, and all things bibliomania.

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Christopher Nelson: Good morning, Admiral. Thank you for taking the time to chat. As I understand, you are a grandfather now. Congratulations. What books are you reading to your granddaughter? Little Blue Truck and anything Curious George is popular in our house.

Admiral Stavridis: My go-to books are Goodbye Moon and anything Sesame Street. Those are for Lorelei, who is now 14 months old. I do want to say that when she gets older I intend — as I did for both of my daughters — to read the Harry Potter series to her. I did that for both girls even when I was deployed. I would read the books and then record the readings onto tapes. I’d then mail the tapes back home so they could hear me reading to them. I just loved reading to my children and now my granddaughter.

In your new book, The Leader’s Bookshelf, you and your co-author, Robert M. Ancell, talk about building a personal library. You’ve also written extensively about the size of your library — some 4,000 books or more. How do you organize such a large personal library? By genre? Topic? Author? Color? Other?

[Laughter] Certainly not by color. I have about 4,500 books total. I start by peeling off all of the signed first editions, which I collect. Whenever I’m lucky enough to meet an author, I try and get a first edition of their book and then get them to sign it. Of those, I have about 500 signed first editions in my library.

I have a huge section on fiction which is arranged alphabetically by author. I also have a nautical section. In the nautical section, I violate the fiction rule by including nautical fiction and non-fiction. So in that section, I’ll have Patrick O’Brian’s books, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series sitting alongside Dutton’s Navigation and Piloting, Command at Sea, those kinds of books.

Also, in terms of non-fiction, I have a big history section that is clustered by epoch. I have a section of art; I love art books. And I collect two types of books. The first is called the Modern Library series. These books are very small, hardbound classics with beautiful dust jackets printed in the 1930s and 1940s. I also collect Heritage Press books, which are sometimes called “boxed books.” These are also classics. They are all in their own section. I admit that I have a weakness for vintage paperbacks. I have all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond titles, Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, and Frank Herbert’s Dune in vintage paperback. And that is another section. My library is not hyper-organized, but I’m pretty good at finding a book if I need to.

Over time, then, it sounds like you’ve come up with a “mental model” of your library.

When someone asks me, “Can you recommend a book for me?” I literally imagine myself walking around my library. (I say library, but the books are in three rooms in my house.) One of the rooms is an actual library, which is nothing but books. The other is a big family room with books all around it. The third room is an office, separate from the house; it also has books in it. I just picture myself walking around finding the book and then I will recommend it to someone. Same thing if I want the book in my hand, I can mentally walk myself around and find it pretty quickly.

Author Umberto Eco, whom I’m sure you know and read, said that “read books are less valuable than unread books. Our personal library shouldn’t be an ego boost but a research tool.” How many of the 4,500 books in your library of are unread?

Very few of my books are unread. I’d say out of 4,500 books there might be several hundred that I haven’t sat and read. This brings up an interesting question, which I get a lot. I’m often asked, “How do you read so much?” My answer to that is I read fast to read slow. What I mean by that is I read a lot of books very fast. I don’t skim them, but I move through them very briskly. I’ll read three or four books a week like that. But then when the weekend comes — again, read fast to read slow — I will read a book very slowly over the weekend. These are books that have really caught my attention. I’ll give you an example of a book I read over the past weekend. It’s called The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. It is a book about a hermit in the woods of Maine. It’s a book that I read very slowly because it caught my attention and just demanded to be read very slowly. This book is similar to the style of Jon Krakauer’s work. This hermit is 20 years old, lives in central Maine, and just walks off into the woods and stays there for the next 30 years. It’s a fascinating book.

If you read fast to read slow, let’s say 150 books a year fast, you will really only read 50 of them deeply. That’s my philosophy.

What’s your most valuable book? You recently wrote about your $19.00 purchase of a signed copy of President Trump’s Art of the Deal, something you picked up years ago. You’ll be happy to hear that first editions of his book, depending on condition, are going anywhere from $200-$2000. Looks like you did well there.

[Laugh] The most valuable book I own is a first edition, first printing, hardbound edition of the Lord of the Rings. It is hard to find. I also have a nice edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Those are probably the two most valuable books that I own. The best buy that I ever got in books was when my wife, Laura, found a beautiful 50 volume leather-bound set of the Harvard Classics. She found them at a garage sale for 50 cents each. $25.00 for the entire set. That was a good deal.

What’s the most treasured book in your library? A book that has sentimental value?

This will sound slightly odd, but I really love Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s an incredible work of imagination and I’ve gone back to it many times. I have a very nice hardcover of it, and as I mentioned I also have it in vintage paperback. I’m also huge Hemingway fan. I have five different first editions of his books. Hemingway and Dune are two that I keep coming back to when I want to reread a novel.

I want to ask you about the military’s reading culture — if there really is such a thing. I’m skeptical that we have a healthy reading culture in the U.S. military. I don’t think people make time to read. While granted, I don’t have any data to support such a statement; I don’t think enough people in the service value reading. What are your thoughts?

I think it is a good question for the military. We have to be a learning organization. And you cannot be a learning organization without being a reading organization. I would argue that in many ways the most efficient ways to learn, after personal experience, is to read. Reading is an imaginative personal experience. I agree with you. I think the culture of reading is weakening. I think there are pockets of people who are enormous readers, but I think there are fewer people who read, say, twenty books a year than there used to be. I think we need to emphasize reading. I think the service chiefs and combatant commanders agree with that. But instead of just putting out a reading list people need to do events where you bring an author to the command and let them talk about a book. As the commander, bring up examples of what you’ve learned and what you’ve taken away from books that are applicable to tactics, war-fighting, ethics, leadership, and so on.

One area that I think is a bright spot in this is less reading but more writing. I see a lot of vets (and others) who are writing about the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars: Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, etc. I think there is a vibrant writing culture; less so in the reading culture. It is up to mid-grade and senior officers to inculcate reading into their juniors. They can’t just throw a reading list at people thinking that is going to get it done. And so much of it is simple: Does the commander walk around with a book? Does the commander bring up books? Also, there are huge resources available in this regard. I think most of the services allow you to access books on the reading list on an electronic reading device. That’s a free library — you can get a few hundred books on your Kindle. Now, I’m not advocating quizzing people, but I am advocating that we have conversations with people. We need to bring the power of reading books to what we do day-to-day.

I’d like to expand upon this if I may. What would you recommend that a commanding officer — or any leader of any organization for that matter — do to encourage a reading environment, a reading culture?

Let’s say you are at the O5 level in command of a destroyer. Are there books by your captain’s chair? Do you read a book on the bridge when possible? When you are getting ready to pull into a port, do you have a conversation about the port you are pulling into? For example, Singapore — does anybody know the history of Singapore? That sort of thing. Are you asking your wardroom to read one book a month? One book every two months? And then ask yourself, are you having conversations about books when sitting around the wardroom table? So much of it is as easy as talking to people about what you are reading and then asking them what they are reading. Then it is like the marketplace, people either get into it or they don’t. I would argue that books can stand up to all the competition out there — video games and such — if leaders continue to extol the value of good books.

What books are on your nightstand now? 

The book that is on my nightstand that I am going to read slow next is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. As the title implies it is about the anthropological development of the human race through time. It is not the typical book I read, but it has gotten incredible reviews. The book that I am fast reading at the moment, which is on the best seller list and is very good, is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Just fabulous. It’s clever and it’s got echoes of the world we live in today.

When you read slowly, do you mark your books up? Underline important passages?

Great question. If it is a first edition, a collectible book, I will mark it very lightly in pencil so it is erasable and does not harm the value of the book. If it is just a reader’s copy, a non-first edition or paperback, I’ll mark it up. When I am reading on a Kindle I mark a book up aggressively. Typically, I’ll have, let’s see, 100 things that are underlined in a 300-page book. I often go back to books, and it is like leaving breadcrumbs, you want to be able to find your way back to things that had an impact on you.

What’s the last book you started but just couldn’t finish because you just didn’t get into it or didn’t enjoy it?

[Laugh] I have tried, I think, six times to start and finish Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, also referred to as À la Recherché du Temps Perdu, (In Search of Lost Time). I’ve tried and failed — I just can’t get there. I’ve also tried hard to read James Joyce Ulysses. I have dipped into it from time-to-time but I have never read it in its entirety.

A few years ago, when you were the European Commander, you wrote about your daily consumption of information for Atlantic magazine. Fast forward to today, has it changed?  Do you read differently now that you are out of uniform?

I read similarly to what I did at European Command. I’m at my desk, here at Tufts, at 0600 in the morning. Because the university doesn’t get started till 0830, I have a lot of time to get work done in the morning. And because I am on planes a lot, and weirdly because I am flying commercially, and because it is much less efficient than in flying in a combattant commander’s jet, I am often waiting for a flight, waiting to get on a plane. No one bothers me, no one is trying to reach me, and so I can get a lot of reading done. I do almost no classified reading at this point. I read The Economist and The New York Times. I am also reading a lot more fiction now that I am out of uniform. I still read CHINFO Clips, the Defense Early Bird, and I enjoy the Naval Institute website. Basically, it is pretty much the same as my time in Europe, just take out the intelligence reading and add more fiction.

Shifting to poetry. What is one book of poetry that should be on everyone’s shelf?

I’m going to take the easy way out and say Norton’s anthology of modern poetry. It’s a fantastic big, thick book that covers the gamut, largely of western but some international poetry as well. If you want one book of poetry by a poet, I’d say A.E. Housman’s “Shropshire Lad.” I think that it is a highly underrated piece of work. But I can’t imagine a shelf that doesn’t have Yeats, Robinson Jeffers, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, and Shakespeare. And actually, now that I think about it, Shakespeare’s complete works — the Riverside edition — would be up there for a single work of poetry that should be in your library.

Sir, if I may, I recommend you check out poets Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. Both are terrific.

I know Mary Oliver’s work; I enjoy it. I’m less familiar with Billy Collins’ work. But I’ll be sure to look him up.

Do you read graphic novels? You didn’t discuss graphic novels in your book, but if you added a chapter about graphic novels, what would you say?

I think graphic novels are a distinct form of literature. I love graphic novels. It is kind of hard to pick among the different genres of graphic novels. First of all, I am a big fan of Marvel and DC. I like the classics, of course, Batman and Superman. I enjoy Frank Miler’s novel 300, you know, the battle of Thermopylae. I like Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher series. Let’s see, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, now that’s terrific. Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta is extraordinary. And my all-time favorite is Alan Moore’s Watchmen. There’s also a graphic non-fiction book worth looking at. Take a look at the graphic novel of the 9/11 report. Check it out, it’s worth reading.

As a stylist, what author do you most enjoy? Someone that if you read carefully can improve your writing?

Winston Churchill. And I’ll also throw in Cormac McCarthy. Both are excellent writers. Also, if you want to learn how to put rhythm in your writing, you can’t go wrong picking up the King James Bible.

If you were hosting dinner for four authors dead or alive who is coming to the Stavridis house?

The young Ernest Hemingway, when he was still charming and full of good stories. Shakespeare, to find out if he really wrote all those plays. Patrick O’Brian, so there was someone who could tell a good sea story. And maybe Herman Wouk. Those four.

What is your writing process like?

Totally boring. I’m a laptop guy. I compose and edit entirely on the laptop. The only time I get a pen out is if the laptop is out of juice. I do, however, love fountain pens. I write letters with fountain pens. I have four hundred fountain pens. I love the Parker centennials, those are beautiful pens. I like, as most do, Montblanc fountain pens. And I think Pelican makes a great fountain pen. Those are my three most favorite pens.

You gave the president some reading recommendations.  But what about Secretary Mattis?  Next time you run into him, what book do you recommend that he read?

I will recommend two books. The first is called Black Flags by Joby Warrick. It won the Pulitzer last year; it is about the rise of ISIS. It can tell you how to reverse engineer ISIS, and that in the end is how we kill it. And I would also recommend a novel called The North Water by Ian McGuire. It is an epic sea tale. It is about a doomed whaling ship that is heading up to the arctic in the 19th century. It is a tale of good and evil coming to grips in a very small space. But what I would do, before even recommending a book to him, is ask him what he is reading. I know he is busy, but I hope he is continuing to carve out time to read because that is what good leaders do, they make time to read — and he is one of our greats.

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While finalizing the transcript of this interview, a friend asked me, belatedly, if I would ask Adm. Stavridis, “What was the last book that changed his mind about a particular subject?” I thought it was an excellent question — certainly in an age of political intransigence and zero sum thinking that seems to infect our culture. I sent Adm. Stavridis a short note, including the question. He sent me a response the next day:

The last book that changed my mind was Sapiens by Harari. Before reading it I thought the key changes coming in our world would revolve around cyber and information. Now I believe they will be biologic, which will change every element of the international system and our perceptions of the meaning of life. Harari unpackaged this in a second book, Homo Deus which I am reading now!


Adm. James Stavridis is the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A retired 4-star officer in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander with responsibility for Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, piracy, and cyber security. 

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The comments and questions here are his own.

Image: Unsplash, CC