A little while ago I had the opportunity to exchange emails with ADM Stavridis. As someone majoring in a non-technical field yet entering a technical service, I was curious to see what ADM Stavridis had to say on how his undergraduate major (English) served him in the Navy:

I loved my English major and it has helped me immensely throughout my career. Every single day I used the skills I acquired in my major to be a better communicator, analyst, and leader. English majors read with a critical and analytical eye; bound across countless situations and worlds in the books they read; and learn in the process an enormous amount about the journey of life. Reading and studying fiction is really like living many, many additional lives.

Every day I wrote something and communicated to my team; every day I had to analyze problems, most often regarding human personality; and every day I used what I learned as a leader. What I discovered reading Hemingway, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Updike, Forester, McCarthy, and countless other authors shaped my world-view and honed my understanding of the most complex terrain in the world – the human heart.

I then asked him, “If you had to recommend one book for midshipmen to read before commissioning what would you suggest?” His reply:

I’ll give you three, if I may:

“The Sun Also Rises,” by Ernest Hemingway – a sad, haunting story of American ex-patriots living a dissipated life in Europe in the 1920s.

“Master and Commander” by Patrick O’Brian – the first in a series of 20 novels about a sea captain in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic wars. It is a long study of leadership and life at sea, and simply brilliant in every regard.

“All the Pretty Horses,” by Cormac McCarthy – a coming of age novel set in Texas and Mexico in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Truthfully, I have not read any of those books! Summer is always a great time for me to catch up on personal reading–anymore suggestions from the audience? For professional reading, Embedded: A Marine Corps Advisor Inside the Iraqi Army has caught my eye.

Fine Literature

Fine Literature…?

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Books, Training & Education

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  • UltimaRatioReg

    Midn Withington,

    Excellent post. The Admiral is right as rain. I am biased, with my liberal arts background, but his words are good guidance.

    Another book: Moby Dick.

    Even if you have read it before, it will be a different book now.

    When you read it at 15, it’s about a whale.

    When you read it at 18, it’s about a man and a whale.

    When you read it at 21, it’s about a man and his crew.

    At 30, you realize it has little to do with a whale.

    And at 35, you will recognize much more of Ahab, in yourself and others, than you ever dreamed possible.

  • Byron

    Ah, don’t spoil the story, URR!

    Here’s mine:

    The Big E (if you haven’t read this already, shame on ya)
    Starship Troopers (yeah, yeah, but you’d be surprised how many CO’s requied JO list this is on)
    Six Frigates

    For an author of amazing talent with descriptive prose, anything by James Lee Burke

  • Conrad

    I recommend “The Good Shepherd” by C.S. Forester.

  • Brian

    I’m just finishing up “The Unforgiving Minute” by Craig Mullany. It’s a really good tome on the makings of a leader at the platoon level, in combat. Very well written and thoughtful.

  • jwithington

    Starship Troopers is a very good book. In fact, I took a course through our English department here dedicated to the writing of Robert Heinlein (book’s author).

    Brian, Craig Mullaney, while an USMA grad, taught here at USNA for a few years!

  • Byron

    Mr. Withington, I’m going to give you one more. It’s by John Ringo (who is just as good as Heinlein): “The Last Centurion”. It’s written blog style, and follows the action of a cavalry major. You can read the first four chapters here:


    And simply put, anything with Ringo’s name on is a damn good read. We call it, “reader crack” 😉

  • Grampa Bluewater

    Some old stuff you might find interesting:
    Herman Wouk:

    The Caine Mutiny

    The Winds of War

    War and Remembrance

    C. S Forester:
    Any and all of the Hornblower books.

    Edward L. Beach:

    Run Silent, Run Deep.

    Elizabeth Moon:

    Anything, she can’t write a bad book.

    Lois McMasters Bujold:

    The “Miles” books, start with Shards of Honor, then Barrayar.

    And one final recommendation, an autobiograpy – Ulysses S. Grant.

  • Byron

    Another one: Pournelles Falkenberg series. Pretty good stuff on military history, leadership, small wars, all rolled into sci-fi.

    And btw, Pournelle has a blog 😉


  • Grampa Bluewater

    And a damn good one.

  • Skyhawk maintainer

    In my first squadron, our Master Chief was taking English in college and had to use his new found knowledge at morning quarters and I was usually surrounded by many of the crew for a translation prior to falling in for FOD walkdown. I translated it as simply as I could for them and someone invariably responded “why couldn’t he have said it like that?” I’m at a loss for explaining human behavior and my cat, who knows more of the species than she’ll let on, isn’t talking.
    Anything by Robert Anson Heinlein. He’s usually credited with being a science fiction writer, but he was actually the preeminent 20th century American philosopher.

    Joel Garreau’s book, “The Nine Nations of North America.” Anybody who lives and works in North America should read this.

    Robert L. Forward, PhD, was an excellent author who wrote “Starquake,” a story about human contact with a race living on the surface of a star. A prime example of science fiction and not science fantasy that seems to pervade our culture.

    Andre Cherney’s “The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour.”

    “The History of the US Navy in World War II.”

  • Charlie Gonce

    The Admiral mentioned Cormac McCarthy, so I will relate something from another one of this books – Blood Meridian. In it can be found one of the most striking quotes I’ve ever read:

    “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

    Proufound, isn’t it?

    My book recommendation is to spend 5 bucks on amazon for Allen & Polmar’s bio on Adm. Rickover. A fascinating read about one very interesting man.