The Navy Needs Deep Readers, Not Reading Lists

By Bill Bray

Introduction

In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on June 15, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday was grilled about his reading list. Watching the Navy’s top admiral defending some of the books on his reading list, particularly Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, while the Congress struggles to fund the Navy the nation needs, was a spectacle to say the least and not the funny kind. But it did raise questions in my mind: who needs or cares for a reading list? And how does becoming a deep reader make for becoming a better military leader?

Reading Lists and Subjective Reads

There have been many reading lists for military leaders. To me, they always radiated a whiff of the haughty, didactic proclamation, even though I trust that was never the intent. To be a good leader, thou shalt read these 20 books. Many books on these lists are worth reading, for sure. A few are terrible, especially the ghost-written leadership pablum by former CEOs, a few who a decade or so later wind up embroiled in scandal or even in prison. But when I was a young officer and finally out of school, I found immense pleasure finding my way to books for just about any reason except being told to read them. Natural curiosity leads to discovery, and even more curiosity. Something catches our interest, something we see or hear or read, and it points us to a book. We cultivate a taste for good books. We read about the authors and how the books were conceived. This suggests other books we feel we must read. And so forth.

I have never read a book because it is on a reading list. I have no idea why I read the books I do. There is no method to choosing them, no overarching purpose beyond wanting to be challenged. I love reading great prose. I find it immensely rewarding. Much of it is difficult, although as with anything, one becomes a better reader by reading better material. A mentor once advised that when it comes to reading, when given a choice (and one always has a choice—the best books cost no more than the lousy ones), “read up.” That is good advice.

Many books should not only be read but reread. The experience one has with a book is different with each reading because, in engaging with the text, a reader brings the sum of their knowledge and experience to bear. This is why, for example, a military leader reading Crime and Punishment at age 40 after years of leading troops or sailors and dealing with the military justice system has a much different experience than he or she did reading it at age 20. However, there is seemingly never enough time to read while pursuing a career, so rereading a book usually takes a back seat to knocking out the next one. Even so, rereading is a habit I cannot recommend strongly enough.

A few thoughts about literary writing (fiction and nonfiction). There should be little patience for arguments that no such thing exists, that good writing is no more than a matter of taste. If something cannot be empirically measured, as the arguments sometimes go, any claim on its value is necessarily subjective.

Curiously, no one who ever said as much to me so quickly applied the same caveat to anything else in the world they cared about—architecture, automobiles, clothing, or what have you. When it comes to so many things and issues we encounter in the world each day, discriminating between the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, tactful and coarse, and so forth seems grounded in a deep belief that these distinctions are not hopelessly subjective. Why is writing any different? I do not listen to operas, but I surely accept that a good opera is beautiful music and better than what my middle school band was belting out. Surely, we can agree a similar judgment can be made about writing. That does not mean we cannot disagree about a single book or author or find what many consider good art to be pretentious garbage. We can and should from time to time. Be a harsh critic. But if we don’t enter the discussion accepting and appreciating that such a thing as excellent literary writing exists, we have very little to discuss. 

The military is a highly technical business that demands leaders with technical aptitude and educational foundations. But technical aptitude coupled with a strong science and math foundation is one thing, while over-specialization at the expense of a well-rounded humanistic education is quite another. Much of the latter in life is self-acquired and not absorbed while sitting in a classroom. Yet, reading lists appeal to the technical mind. Technicians like checklists and checking off books instills a sense of certitude in one’s knowledge. Read these 30 books and you’re certified to lead. Sure, the list can be a starting point. But even in that sense, a reading list seems unnecessarily constraining. The best leaders I have known read widely, deeply, and continuously. Their independent curiosity and imagination were their guides, not lists.

In August of 1988, three months after I was commissioned, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost spoke at the Superintendent of the Naval Academy’s change-of-command and said this on the subject of technical education:

“To compete in the world, to serve as a naval officer, today you must have a technical background. If you become an inveterate reader, if an idle moment never finds you without a book in your hand, the broad knowledge will come to you. But without a background in deep technical knowledge, and without the resulting confidence that moves you to unravel technical complexities wherever you find them, you will always be a wallflower in the ballroom of progress, and your success in our profession will suffer accordingly.”1

I agree with much of this. But what always troubled me was Admiral Trost’s nod to inveterate readers that always have a book in their hands. It begs the most important question: which books? Do the type and genre matter? Just history and books on current events? Or was he relying on technically educated officers to cultivate a habit of reading the best literature and philosophy as well? I cannot tell, but in perusing the many CNO reading lists over the years I can speculate that he was not.

Deep Reading and Strengthening Leadership Qualities

After reading books like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I find myself thinking about the story for a long time. The experience deeply resonates, as if I did not just read about something, but rather lived it in some way. I become invested in these characters as if they are real and their fates somehow matter to my fate, or even how history will unfold in the future. Only the very best writers can achieve this, and I am grateful for their gift. After reading so much of it from very early in my career, I believe it helped me be a better naval officer and leader. I fail to see how it couldn’t have.

Can reading literary writing help one be a better leader? It absolutely can. Reading literary writing nurtures thoughtful introspection, which in turn helps leaders police their profession for ethical and honorable behavior. The best writers are experts on the human condition, and reading them enlarges and enriches self-awareness, humility, and empathy, and a genuine respect for one’s fallibility as a leader. Pride alone is the source of many a leader’s downfall, and there isn’t anything to learn about pride in a course on thermodynamics (for the record, I enjoyed and did well in thermodynamics at Annapolis).

Thinking back on my nearly three-decade Navy career, the hardest problems were always leadership problems—human problems. The issues I dealt with are the same that future leaders will deal with, and in these books they are all there—integrity, honor, fairness, justice, courage, loyalty, accountability, greed, bias, deceit, sex, adultery, false piety, careerism, discrimination, race, ethnicity, culture—the list is long. At a minimum, reading good books will ensure one is never surprised at the human failures of military leaders beneath and above them. Art complementing real-world experience is the best recipe for a textured appreciation of human nature and all its mysteries.

Conclusion

Admiral Gilday was right to defend the books on his list against ridiculous partisan political attacks. Military leaders should be open to reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist and other books that challenge conventional thinking. Military leaders are responsible for the lives of Americans of all backgrounds and viewpoints. They should read widely and never be afraid to read an author with whom they might disagree. That is how one nurtures a genuine curiosity—and learns. But don’t read Kendi’s book, or any book, just because it is on a reading list, as if completing a chore. Read good books to be a deep reader. And become a deep reader to become a better leader.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 9, 2020) Sailors prepare for a fueling-at-sea aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Mo Bourdi)

11 thoughts on “The Navy Needs Deep Readers, Not Reading Lists”

  1. I have one question – have you actually read the book on the reading list – based on what you wrote I really do think you did, none of you have as I have. You have to realize who is in the military, and especially the officer corps – I spent 30 years as an aviator and then as a physician in the Navy – and honestly you have to realize when that some young minds are quite impressionable and that even those less than the age of 30 still have minds that can be swayed – but hopefully in the correct way. If you actually talk to these young people like I have you will realize that many of them do NOT agree with the CNO, CNP and many senior officers – we are at a cross roads people and many people do not agree with the way this country is going. And, I for one think it is quite frightening – I was in Norfolk just 2 weeks ago – let’s just say Wow – the place not what is should be – you need to look at Florida – we have open minds – but Virginia – not so open – and the military has followed this closed mind of only allowing THEIR opinion, but not those of others. My son is an aviator and when he attends these so called required training events – him and I have agreed – he can not speak what he really thinks as he is in fear of his life in the military – I for one miss the military of the late 80’s – that was a happy time in the military – we worked together and we had a good rapport with the country – what happened? The woke culture which you you really talk to many people and not listen to the media we all do not agree with what is being presented. So for me – I say one thing – you wearing Stars – GROW A FEW and stand your ground and ANSWER a congressman’s questions – do NOT dance – I want to know what you have to say, I do not want diversion. So Admiral, you are the CNO – I have known many CNO’s over the years as I was close to a CNO’s son who was an orthopedic surgeon with me, and also the Son the Commandant I went to medical school with – neither of those ‘Stars’ would back down – so YOU Sir I expect the same from you. Grow UP and speak your mind.

  2. Reading – books, or any other form factor for the written word – is what puts the reader into the mind of the writer. While not all writings are of equal value – hardly! – one cannot expand their own mind and perception of the broader human experience unless one is willing and able to get in the mind of others. Television and films provide another means, but they are poor means of actually communicating the perceptions and beliefs of others as reading can do.

    I don’t take exception to the notion of reading lists. They are not enforceable commands, just suggestions. Some people like the author are quite self directed in reading choices, while others prefer to follow the suggestions of others, as is the basis of any formal school courses in literature, or book clubs. To each their own,

    CNO Gilday has been made the latest whipping boy for the extremist right wingers in their current “anti-woke” campaign. Extreme left wingers do much the same with their woke cancel culture. It’s just the latest iteration of the never ending culture wars that extremists are forever fighting … while most of us simply are trying to get by and succeed in a challenging and complicated world. All extremists seem focused mostly on narrowing and constraining the human mind. Most of us instead prefer to expand our minds,

  3. I agree with the general point being made. I wholly disagree with the description of “ridiculous partisan attacks” on Kendi’s book. By all means read it and judge for yourself but please note that a lot of people have dug into critical race theory in general and Kendi’s works (and his public statements) in particular and are well-informed about them. There is absolutely no doubt that he is, in fact, a racist who rejects key American principles both of government and personal conduct. He utterly rejects Martin Luther King’s view of a color-blind society. There is, furthermore, no doubt that he views all of our institutions as racist. Gilday gave no evidence of having actually read the book, nor did he show any ability to engage the points being raised. It was hardly the performance of an educated, informed, thoughtful reader interested in engaging in “an open and honest conversation.”. Rather, it was the performance of a superficial, virtue signaling, pompous executive not used to being challenged, qualities all too prevalent in the senior military leadership these days, although sadly common to their counterparts in all our other institutions.

    1. The point is not whether the author of one particular book about race relations is right or wrong … it is that his viewpoint is one that represents the mindset of a lot of Americans today. Reading it won’t contaminate someone – if anything it will innoculate oneself to know how others view the matter.

      Too many extremists on both sides view any expression of the other side’s opinions as equivalent to religious blasphemy punishable by burning at the stake. We humans never learn, apparently.

      In order to think effectively one must know something of how others view matters. And that is what CNO Gilday’s reading list is supposed to help accompllsh – and knowing that nearly all the books in his list have zilch to do with race or political correct thinking.

      If you are so right in your views, then what are you so afraid of? And I say the same to those on the far left bent on canceling out everyone who is not a far lefty.

  4. Reading things doesn’t mean you are going to believe them. How can you question something without reading it? To me, leaders with reading lists need read to understand your leader. Giving a list of 50 books (actually 53) misses the mark. I’m most concerned how badly the CNO was ready for a gotcha question. It was Congress, combat should be expected. Being surprised where there is no surprise attack isn’t confidence inspiring. How do we handle the no win scenario? I’d recommend Star Trek II.

  5. Excellent piece! I too find myself a bit dismayed by the idea that the technical and the humanities are somehow incompatible. Quite the contrary, I believe they are complementary components of a well rounded leader.

    It is no accident that John Paul Jones’ Qualifications of a Naval Officer begins with the admonition, “It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner,” but continues with, “He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education…” Technical acumen is necessary, but not sufficient.

    Noting that liberal in this context refers not to the political arena, but an openness to ideas and an ability to think critically and analytically, it facilitates good leadership by creating the ability to approach situations with an open mind prior to making decisions (often highly consequential ones).

    While books aren’t the only way to cultivate this skill, they are an excellent means, for they generate self awareness and empathy. Breadth in reading (including authors and topics where one might disagree vehemently), is an absolute requirement, so as to gain as complete a perspective as possible.

    As well, deep reading leads to good writing, and taken together they lead to effective communication – another critical ingredient in solid leadership.

  6. The CNO replied evasively to the Congressman and quibbled about his reading list. That is unacceptable. Congress has a Constitutional duty to oversee and the Admiral has a duty to be forthright and respectful. The Admiral failed.

    The CNO Professional Reading Program (posted on navy.mil) starts with a preamble about how 200 years ago USN ships were required to stock certain books onboard and how today every Sailor must deepen their “learning and understanding.”

    The list is organized under various headings. Kendi’s book is categorized as a “Foundational” level book in the “Sailors” Line of Effort. The blurb on the CNO site says it “is a transformative concept” and it “points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.”

    Those words push way beyond “mere suggestions.” I recall many times over 30+ yrs where various COs mandated we read books from some reading list as professional development. When Gilday publishes a list under his signature that is an explicit endorsement and directive.

    1. It’s not an enforceable order to read every book on any leader’s reading list.

      Gilday was not evasive, rather he he was viciously attacked by a political hack who did not represent the views of the Congress but of extremists on the far right.

      Get your story straight.

  7. Professional development for an officer should be an individual project, different for each. Reading lists do no harm, but each officer must, like Captain Bray, orchestrate their own development path. He hits the target with his call for deep reading. Certain key books (for me) were Understanding Media by Marshall MacLuhan, On War, Mahan’s books, Corbett’s books, Hughes’ books and a few others that I have reread multiple times. I agree that reading “extremist” books has benefits if your mind is strong enough to judge objectively.

    My related hobby horse is professional military education. It has deteriorated into a credentialing process, similar to regarding reading lists as constituting sufficient education. Students are “taught” in PME courses and judged at the end to be ready for the next level of responsibility. PME is necessary, don’t get me wrong, but as currently delivered fails to actually educate. Students should do a year or more worth of individual and group research to establish a reflective mindset that allows them to better leverage subsequent professional experience. Deep reading would be a necessary element of that process.

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