SE’s Reading Program – Updated

(I wrote this post for my personal blog, but Lexington Green requested that it be crossposted here. Here it is, in full, with update. There is a discussion already going at personal blog, so check it out there, too.)

I have written on the nature of Professionalism. An element to true Professionalism is the maintenance of a course of independent, continual study. Here I will speak to my personal reading program, which is a core part of my Professional military education.

I started, naturally, with the Marine Reading Program when I was a Marine-Option Midshipman in Naval ROTC. The books on the Marine list were generally pretty good, and I learned a great deal. There were some books that probably didn’t belong on the Marine Reading List, like Rifleman Dodd (by C.S. Forester). At the time the Marine Reading Program was rank-based, meaning that your mandated reading list was determined by your rank. Rifleman Dodd was a book for newer Marines (like me), but frankly, I can’t understand why that book was on the list. It was a boring, slow book about a British Private soldier stranded in Spain fighting a Continental Army allied with Napoleon. The book was included in the list presumably because it was a ham-fisted way to imbue on young Marines the tendency to never give up in dire circumstances. The book is probably good for this, as I very nearly gave up reading the book several times, but persevered. Had I had the attention span of a video-game addict, I probably would have failed in reading the book. (As an aside, Rifleman Dodd is probably better for young officers, as it did show how to fight a conventional army as an insurgent, a concept that might be useful one day.)

After a couple of years of dutifully reading books on the Marine List, I found that my curiosity in military subjects started to move beyond the confines of the Marine List. I found the Army’s reading list, and other lists, and began to read from them. After commissioning as a Second Lieutenant of Marines, initial Marine Corps schooling, and leading my first platoon in a garrison setting, I deployed to Afghanistan in 2004. Deployments can have long stretches of boredom and down-time, during which I read a number of books. After months of muddling through with no real reading strategy I resolved to give form to the conglomeration of reading lists, and actually build a reading program suitable to my needs.

I decided I needed my own list, and it had to have these features:

  • It had to integrate the existing military reading lists into a single document.
  • It had to cover more than just military-related subjects, although military subjects would predominate.
  • The list would have to provide a means to a continuing liberal education.
  • There would be no limit on the types of media on the list: Books, movies, monographs, poetry, could all make it onto the list.

I then assembled as many military reading lists as I could and collated them into a single document. The Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard all maintain reading programs, along with most of the career- and intermediate-level military schools (Army Command & Staff College, Naval War College, etc.) Microsoft Excel wound up being my (very crude) database. Some of the lists allowed for simple reformatting, followed by cutting and pasting the entries into the database. Some lists required hand entry, which was tedious. Tedium was a cost I was willing to pay, because I wanted a high-quality list that would help me guide my reading decisions. The result was an Excel database of the universe of military reading as seen from an early 21st century American.

The database is still incomplete, as I found that entering footnoted books and bibliographies was also worthwhile. As it currently stands, it has some 5000 entries, each of which I intend to read. This may seem like too many books for a single man to read, but I am heartened that Marine leaders like Gen. Mattis maintain libraries of thousands of volumes (scroll down through half of the AFJ article for a profile of Mattis).

I will leave you with some general guidelines on how I execute my personal reading program:

  • Reading requires discipline. It requires using every possible day to read. Occasionally operations, exercises, training get in the way of such reading–that is life, but it’s not an excuse. Make time to read.
  • Though reading does require discipline, if a book is beyond your level of understanding, there is no shame in putting that volume down and selecting another work. If a book only brings you difficulty, perhaps now is not the time to read it, and you should consider picking up that book once your mind a bit more leavened. The books you read should reinforce your discipline, and your discipline should reinforce your reading.
  • Reading pays dividends. Reading a single book or a few books pays a small dividend, but the knowledge gained by a disciplined approach to reading makes you incredibly rich, not only in knowledge, but also in Professional reputation. You become someone who is “well-read.” People seek you out for knowledge. Apprentices see you as a leader because you have the discipline to train your mind. Enlisted men speak behind your back about how you’re one of the “smart officers.” You become able to converse with superiors.
  • Buying books today is expensive, but it need not be. Nonetheless there are great deals out there. Check out the “Bargain” areas of your local chain bookstore. You’ll often find decent books there for 50-70% below the list price. Also, online used-book retailers like Alibris and Abebooks provide similar savings on used books in good condition. Libraries that are looking to reduce their inventory are also sources for inexpensive books.
  • When you see a good book, buy it, even if you don’t intend to read it for some time. This is a good way to quickly build a library, and it gives you options later. Having books available on your bookshelf makes deciding what to read much easier.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a single genre or media. Some of the best works relating to war and peace are fiction, or poetry. These works can speak to the warrior’s soul as much as reading about the woes of the entrenched Stormtroopers of the 1918 Summer Offensive.
  • Read broadly. My military education so far has included general history, biographies, economics, philosophy, The Classics, political science, sociology, religion, and physics, in addition to military history and theory. The world is amazingly complicated, and neglecting the broad, liberal foundation on which military art and science rest is foolish.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a single reading list. Each service maintains a reading list, and some are better than others. Likewise, some commands, blogs, schools, and even congressmen maintain reading lists. Use them, too.
  • Make it a habit to carry a book with you wherever you go. It is amazing how much decent reading time is available when in waiting rooms, standing in lines, during field exercises, and on lunchbreaks.
  • Don’t loan out your books. You will never get them back.
  • Buy your books, don’t borrow them. This is the only way to build a library, and it allows you to take notes in the margins of the books.
  • Don’t take flak from your peers and superiors on your reading habits. If they are dumb enough to use anti-intellectualism as a weapon, their professional ethic is suspect.
  • Have fun. Your Profession should give you pride. Pride comes from discipline. Discipline manifests itself in many ways, including your study habits.

ZenPundit and others have written about their Anti-Libraries (the books they own but have not yet read). I will do the same. I will also publish a list of books I own and have read.

Feel free to comment your your reading habits.

Update: Upon reflecting on my bullet list of reading program guidelines, I recognize that I neglected a couple points:

  • Read deeply. When you read on a subject, read multiple works concerning the same topic. This works especially well with biographies and memoirs. Interested in Erwin Rommel? Read Knight’s Cross, by Fraser, which is probably the best biography about the man. In your reading, you find that Rommel was a maneuverist of the highest caliber. Is that because of his infantry training? Personal study habits? Or were German officers all exceptional maneuverists? You might find answers in Panzer Battles, by von Mellenthin, who was a less-known but equally successful Wehrmacht general. Other pairs of biographies worth reading together are: 1) It Doesn’t Take a Hero, by Schwarzkopf & Petre, and Into the Storm, by GEN Fred (not Tommy) Franks & Clancy, and 2) Boyd, by Coram, and The Mind of War, by Hammond.
  • As I said earlier, books are expensive, but they need not be. This is true, however, some books and monographs are expensive because they are out-of-print classics, and are worth reading. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and spend $90 for a 300-page volume, because it’s worth it. And some works are in print, and expensive, and worth the money. An example is the 31-page monograph by Edward Tufte called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint ($7, about 23 cents/page). My only advice for these is: caveat emptor. Know what you’re about to buy! (The PowerPoint monograph is first-rate, by the way).

I will add more points as I think of them.

Update II: Crossposted at Smitten Eagle.

3 thoughts on “SE’s Reading Program – Updated”

  1. Wow, this is great. More than just “read a lot” or a compilation that includes the Bible, Catcher in the Rye and a bunch of James Joyce books.

    The only other person I’ve seen close to this is Ryan Holiday. I found him through Kevin Kelly:

    That’s actually how I found out about the Boyd book.

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