James Holmes' Summer Reading List
So it appears it’s summer-reading-list season already, even though spring is just now hitting its stride in New England after a record- (and heart-) breaking winter. For example, Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the dear old Fletcher School, keeps it real with an engagingly eclectic array of fiction and nonfiction, serious works and fluff. Hey Admiral, you had me at Tony Bourdain!!!
But it’s impossible to reduce a summer reading list to your five favorite works: there are simply too many out there to choose from. Trying to do so would be rather like formulating your top five songs, as radio legend and grump Don Imus demands that all guests do. “Songs”? That sounds like you’re pitting Bach or Grieg, among the best of the best from the orchestral world, against Ray Charles or the Dropkick Murphys, some of my faves from popular music. What possible standard would you use to make the cut between the Renaissance and Motown? That way lies madness. Top 100, maybe.
So it is with books. How do you rank Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments against Harry Potter? Ergo, what follows is my list of five works for strategists enjoying a summertime slowdown. You’ll look in vain for academic tomes or ponderous treatises on strategic theory here. The first cut is whether I could envisage you, dear reader, devouring them while sitting on a porch or strand, glass of your favorite adult beverage in hand.
The works are either fiction, or nonfiction that’s written as engagingly as fiction. Serious content merges with uplift and entertainment. And to a one, these books are supremely well written—and thus worth studying to help sharpen your writing style. With that, five classic works—listed in no particular order—to enliven lazy summer months:
James Hornfischer, Last Stand of the Tin-Can Sailors. The U.S. Navy’s Iliad. Unless you’re a World War II buff, review Samuel Eliot Morison’s workmanlike volume on the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944), history’s last major fleet action, before turning to Hornfischer’s account. The book relates how a motley force of destroyers and destroyer escorts—the “tin cans” from the book’s title—charged an Imperial Japanese Navy fleet centered on Yamato, history’s largest battleship, and won. Hornfischer is at his best when explaining what shipboard life is like, and when recounting the deeds of protagonists like Commander Ernest E. Evans, the skipper who led the destroyer Johnston on two mad and ultimately fatal dashes into the guns of the Japanese task force. Epic.
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim. It’s tough to pick your top five just of Conrad’s works, but this one’s my personal favorite. Jim is a crewman aboard the merchantman Patna transiting the Indian Ocean. He commits a cowardly act in a time of crisis, abandoning the ship and the passengers in his care. He’s stripped of his mariner’s license and disgraced. Conrad recounts Jim’s efforts to evade infamy—he resettles to a remote settlement in Malaya—and find redemption. The finest work from a master wordsmith and storyteller.
Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. A fictional account of the historical Battle of Gettysburg (1863). Like James Hornfischer, Shaara excels at showing what combat is like for rank-and-file soldiers and officers. All of the major Union and Confederate figures—Meade, Lee, Longstreet, and on and on—are here. The most appealing character in Shaara’s tale, though, is 20th Maine Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, arguably U.S. history’s greatest warrior-scholar-statesman. Chamberlain took a sabbatical from his teaching duties at Bowdoin College to take up the Union cause. At Gettysburg his regiment kept the 15th Alabama from collapsing the Union position on Little Round Top—and potentially carrying the day for the Confederacy. He was decorated with the Medal of Honor for heroism—not bad for a professor.
Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire. Another page-turning work of historical fiction. Pressfield recounts the Battle of Thermopylae through the eyes of a fictional Spartan infantryman who survives the battle against Xerxes’ Persian host. If classical antiquity is new to you, shame on you. First scope out the later books of Herodotus’ History, which retells how vastly outmatched Greek city-states checked, and ultimately defeated, Xerxes’ bid for European conquest. The last stand of King Leonidas and the three hundred Spartans is a parable of valor in the face of insurmountable odds—not to mention the story of how a few saved Western civilization as it was coming into being. Kudos to Pressfield for reclaiming Thermopylae for modern readers—and doing so with such aplomb.
Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles. A navy man with a gifted pen, McKenna chronicles the exploits of the fictional U.S. Navy gunboat San Pablo. San Pablo is assigned to police Chinese rivers amid the chaos following the Qing Dynasty’s collapse and the outbreak of World War II. McKenna tells the story mainly through the eyes of engineer Jake Holman, who befriends and attempts to teach steam engineering to a Chinese coolie working on board the gunboat. Try explaining the main steam cycle to someone when you share no common language beyond pidgin English. An eyewitness to the beginnings of the Chinese Civil War, Holman tries to make sense of the events and factional strife engulfing China. A riveting tale about the U.S. Navy’s encounter with Asia in the early 20th century. I always recommend that mariners who don’t know the region but want to read The Sand Pebbles first. Small wonder it remains a fixture on the U.S. Navy Professional Reading List.