It’s past midnight in Kansas, and I’m still awake when everyone else in my house has long since “racked out.” One of the dogs is snoring in the corner, no doubt dreaming of one of the rabbits that often wander – much to their own demise – into our backyard. The antique mantle clock peals loudly, a reminder that I’ve been up for nearly thirty minutes already. It’s an occupational hazard when you go to bed thinking about a blog post and wake up three hours later with an epiphany about a hot tasker at work. So, I lean back against the pillow, take my tablet from the night table, and tap the Kindle app on the screen. Lately, I’ve been reading – actually re-reading – Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood; I’m not sure why, but it puts me to sleep within a couple of pages every time. However, on this morning, I’m in the mood for something different.
The tabs on the screen offer a multitude of choices. I could tap the icon for On War, but I would spend the next four or five hours mulling over Clausewitz’s penchant for metaphors, rather than getting an hour or two of good sleep. David Epstein’s Range is on the night table, but as good as that book has been, it will push me to write too early in the day. Mike Mazarr’s Leap of Faith has been a great read, but I’m trying to settle the active mind, not stir it. There’s even a graphic novel, Six Days, but if I turn on a light, the dogs at my feet will decide it’s a good time to go outside and my hopes of a few more hours of sleep will be lost. Finally, I tap the icon for Valley Forge, the remarkable story of one of the most inspiring chapters in American history, and ease back into the pillow to begin reading.
When I open my eyes again, the tablet is on the floor, the dogs are restless, and my mind is alive in anticipation of that first cup of coffee. I reach to collect the tablet, and inadvertently tip the growing stack of books beside the bed. Within that stack are authors and genre that span a widely eclectic spectrum, from Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming to Jim Storr’s The Hall of Mirrors. From the new Lee Child short story to an amazingly good read from Roger Sparks and Don Rearden, Warrior’s Creed. Anyone who tried to define my reading tastes would undoubtedly find them, well… difficult to define.
As the three of us make our way down the stairs in the predawn darkness, we pass bookcases filled with the knowledge of years of reading. On the armoire that serves as the family nerve center, books are stacked haphazardly, nearly to the ceiling. Even as I sit to enjoy that first cup of morning coffee, I have to move two books taking space in my office chair. In the countless sets of quarters my family have called “home” over the years, books have always been an essential component of life; to us, reading is fundamental.
Reading in the Military as Common as an Early Morning Reveille
In military life, reading lists are as common as the timeless notes of Reveille in the early morning hours. These reading lists often shape our view of the Profession, providing rare insight into the minds of our most senior leaders. Or at least that’s what we like to think. Each year, we see fairly pointed debates over these lists, which inevitably evolve into a veritable “bookshelf measuring contest” over which written works to include on a professional reading list. Someone will always cite Once an Eagle, while others will lean toward Band of Brothers or underscore the necessity of Thucydides. There will always be a pundit shocked that anyone of intellect would waste their time with “vacuous” works of fiction while others will ridicule the handful of lists that don’t include seminal works such as Clausewitz (who is dead, by the way) and Sun Tzu (who we don’t even know for sure ever lived).
In truth, a reading list is a very personal expression of one’s own interests and preferences. Have I read Sun Tzu? Yes, but it isn’t on my reading list. Have I read Clausewitz? Many times, and he is on my reading list. You won’t find Once an Eagle but you will find A Bridge too Far. You’ll find Dan Heath and Chip Heath alongside writers such as Norman MacLean and Ken Kesey. You will find some of Frank Miller’s darkest works, but you won’t see that much ancient history. The late Stephen Ambrose is a personal favorite because he was a master of the historical narrative. The American revolutionary period greatly interests me, and much of that stack next to my bed is comprised of accounts of that time. I even keep a copy of The Story of Ferdinand in a drawer in my night table as a constant reminder that we need to take the time to enjoy life, not just watch it pass us by.
Ultimately, it is more important that we are reading, feeding our minds with a constant stream of information and knowledge (yes, I do think there is a difference), than the specific titles we choose to read. Over the years, I’ve fielded more than my share of recommendations (in fact, Leap of Faith came highly recommended by a close friend), and even more chastisement for not reading specific titles (for my “professional growth and development”). I deeply appreciate the former and seriously question the wisdom of the latter. It’s my reading list, not yours.
In my home, everyone owns a tablet and can freely download whatever they choose to read. What’s important is that they are reading. One is re-reading The Silmarillion while another is consumed with Frank Miller’s work on Superman: Year One and yet another is engrossed in cookbooks. My wife relaxes to Charlotte Bronte while I dig into the stack each night to satisfy the mood of the day. Everyone’s reading list is unique, but each is remarkable in its own way. So, when you struggle with what to read, or which reading list to follow, remember one immutable fact.
Reading is fundamental.