SE’s Reading Program – With Update

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.  Enlistedmen 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 Knights 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:  Per Lexington Green’s request, I have crossposted at ChicagoBoyz.

15 Responses to SE’s Reading Program – With Update

  1. fabius.maximus.cunctator says:


    Very well put.

    One thing that still amazes me is how the very senior officers in Napoleon`s army used to take books with them on their campaigns and read of an evening after a hard day`s campaigning. The autobigraphy of Gen. Baron de Marbot (Mémoires du Gen. Bon. de Marbot 1844) details the reading habits of the dashing Maréchal Lannes in that respect.

    Practical points: I ve actually shut down my TV gain reading time. Radio and the net for hot news.
    When travelling audiobooks and books in etext format on a laptop or even PDA are very useful. A laptop can carry a whole library (mine does).

    Additions: “Serious” newspapers (in my case The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Libération, Le Figaro, Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Neue Züricher Zeitung and The Economist) are a highly valuable addition IMO. I read one a day (politics and the economy section plus nonfiction book reviews before anything else) when I am at work and more when on holiday. Secondly, I am very fortunate in reading English and French as well. Good job my parents kept me at it when I was smaller. So: no inaccurate translations, no waiting for translations and a lot more good stuff (which never gets translated) to read – a privilege !

    Question: have you read “Vision to execution” by Gen. Marvin Corvault and if so, how do you rate it? It`s on my desk just now.

    Terribly long comment I am afraid, but I find both yr post and the subject highly interesting.

  2. kotare says:

    Another thought provoking post, SE. I agree with the points you make, in particular about carrying a book with you where ever you go.

    Like Fabius, I’ve stopped watching TV, apart from the occasional dvd. It’s amazing how much time this frees up for reading, even in a busy day.

  3. smitteneagle says:

    Thanks for the kudos, gents.

    I only rarely see the TV these days, and that’s fine. I prefer to read while deployed, however, as I am usually able to concentrate more.

    FMC-I have not read Vision to Execution. Let me know how it is. And don’t fret about the comment length.

    Semper Fidelis, all

  4. Jeremiah says:

    Very interesting post.

    Do you have a system for taking and keeping notes on the various books you’ve read as well? Recently I’ve been using Post-It flags to mark interesting passages/concepts then later write them down in a spiral notebook.

  5. smitteneagle says:

    I actually use post-its and 3×5 cards (to write down larger thoughts). I usually write in the margins too, if I can fit my thoughts there. I know that some people frown on this, but these are MY books, and I don’t intend on parting with them any time soon!

    I don’t generally need to rewrite my thoughts in a notebook…the 3×5 is usually sufficient.

    I’m also an obsessive highlighter. I highlight whenever a passage is self explanitory and worth noting.

  6. […] SE’s Reading Program Post Has Been Updated! Posted July 14, 2008 Filed under: Uncategorized | Here! […]

  7. […] (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.) […]

  8. andrewdb says:

    So when are you posting this spreadsheet?

  9. smitteneagle says:


    The demand for the spreadsheet has been pretty large. I have received several emails requesting it. I will post it. However, because the spreadsheet has been made by me, for my own use, it needs some modification and cleaning up before I post it for public consumption.

    It WILL be posted.


  10. […] I have seen Col Hammes speak.  He gave a seminar to my unit back in 2004 on 4GW, although I think that most of the officers in attendance weren’t intellectually equipped to handle what Hammes had to say.  I impugn their lack of professionalism and lack of a personal program of independent study. […]

  11. glennanderson says:

    I just use a simple pen to do all the highlighting, I circle the page number for excellent lines and draw a square in the corner for key points. I’ll have to refer to this page when any girl I date ask me why I always have a book in my hands.

    I just stopped paying for cable so the temptation of TV isn’t even there.

  12. […] Reading List Posted January 3, 2009 Filed under: Books, Education, Military, War | I have written before on the nature of my personal reading program.  Since I published that post I have received email […]

  13. […] a comment » I have written before on the nature of my personal reading program. Since I published that post I have received email and […]

  14. […] have written before on the nature of my personal reading program. Since I published that post I have received email and […]

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