On Reading

Why Reading is Still Fundamental

It’s past midnight in Kansas, and I'm still awake when everyone else in my house has long since “hit the rack.” It’s an occupational hazard when you go to bed thinking about a cartoon and wake up three hours later with an idea for a new blog post. So, I lean back against the pillow, take my iPad from the night table, and tap the Kindle app on the screen. Lately, I've been reading – actually re-reading – Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, but on this morning, I’m in the mood for something different.

The tabs on the screen offer a multitude of choices. I could open the classic 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. Gary Klein’s Seeing What Others Don't and Ori Brafman’s The Chaos Imperative both await, but I'm trying to settle the active mind, not stir it. There’s even a Terminal Lance graphic novel, Revenge of the Dependapotamus, but if I start laughing, the dogs at my feet will decide it’s a good time to go outside and my hopes of sleep will be lost. Finally, I tap the icon for Brothers Forever, the remarkable story of two young men who go from Naval Academy roommates to casualties of war, and ease back into the pillow and begin reading.

“Anyone who tried to define my reading tastes would undoubtedly find them, well… difficult to define.”

When I open my eyes again, the iPad is on the floor, the dogs are restless, and my mind is alive with the words for a new post already spinning in my mind. I reach to collect the iPad, 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 Ron Chernow’s Washington to Tony Dungy’s The Mentor Leader. From the new Lee Child novel to my friend Thom Shanker’s amazing book, Counterstrike. 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 pre-dawn 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 on the armchair. In the countless sets of quarters my family have called “home” over the years, books are essential, reading is fundamental.

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 certain 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 the countless sets of quarters my family have called ‘home’ over the years, books are essential, reading is fundamental.”

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 on 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, Brothers Forever 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.

“Everyone’s reading list is unique, but each is remarkable in its own way.”

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 reading World War Z while another is consumed with Slaughterhouse Five and yet another is engrossed in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. 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.