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NavHist - The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea

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Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.   

James G. Stavridis, a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1976, who majored in English and would ultimately rise to four-star admiral, spent 37 years as a surface warfare officer on active service in the U.S. Navy. He commanded destroyers (USS Barry and subsequently Destroyer Squadron 21) and Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, which conducted combat operations in the Persian Gulf in support of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He was the first Navy officer to command the United States Southern Command and became NATO’s 16th Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) 2009-2013. Admiral Stavridis earned a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy in 1983 and a Ph.D. in International Relations in 1984, both from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1984. In addition, he was 1992 distinguished graduate of the U.S. National War College. 

Following his retirement from the Navy in 2013, he returned to Tufts as Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, stepping down in 2018. He is also Chair Emeritus of the Board of Directors of the United States Naval Institute, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and a member of the boards of several corporations and charitable organizations. Stavridis has also been a public speaker and consultant to television and print media as international security and diplomacy analyst. 

Currently, he is Vice-Chair, Global Affairs and Managing Director of the global investment firm the Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation.  He is a prolific scholar, having written hundreds of articles on global security issues and leadership. In addition, he has authored ten books in addition to the volume under review here, as well as 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, co-written with Elliot Ackerman (Penguin Press, 2021).

Nicknamed “Zorba” during his days at the Naval Academy, likely because of his Greek-American heritage, Admiral Stavridis has been a voracious reader of books since early childhood when his father, a Marine colonel, was stationed in the U.S. Embassy Athens and young James had access to the library.  His love of books has continued as readers will learn quickly. His home library currently contains approximately 5,000 volumes about the sea and from which he has selected his personal choices reflecting this passion. In late November 2021, the Naval Institute Press published The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea, in which Stavridis documents his eclectic choices, providing synopses of fifty books that he recommends because they illustrate the history, significance, and lore associated with oceans and those who venture onto and into the sea.

Among his selections, readers will find guides to ship handling and navigation, classic fiction pitting humans against the sea, ecological and strategic challenges, fetes of achievements yet also lessons that derived from failure, economic competition and combat, deep explorations, and poetry that the reflects the sea and seafarers. Some of the titles he includes will be familiar to many readers, but others are likely less well-known. The chosen include several recently published books, yet he also recommends other works, several of which are considered to be “classics” from decades past and deserve recognition. Stavridis renders these selections with reflections from his own service (i.e. “sea stories” in popular jargon) that clarify these choices but also document why he is held in such high regard among his fellow sailors, as well as others. In some instances, he also mentions motion pictures (documentaries and popular films based upon nonfiction and fiction) as diverse as Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki,” Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Master and Commander…,” “Mr. Roberts,” “300,” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” (he does not recommend Marlon Brando’s 1962 film).  

The book begins with a “Preface” in which he documents his passion for the sea, love of books, and biographical notes (see also p. 215). The narrative (pp. 3-192) is divided into four parts of unequal lengths, followed by after matter. I’ll provide an overview of the breadth of his selections in the four categories; the book titles that I cite and the order of discussion are my own choices. 

The Oceans (Chapters 1-13): His 13 selections were published between 1951 and 2020. The author shows himself to be an admirer of Rachel Carson and her The Sea Around Us (1951) and he recommends a chapter, “Changing Climate Changing Chemistry,” from Sylvia Earle’s The World is Blue (2009), and includes Cod: A Biography (1997) by Mark Kurlansky as well as Atlas of Remote Islands (2010) by Judith Schalansky. His naval warfare texts include Simon Winchester’s Atlantic Great Sea Battles … (2010), his newer book, Pacific (2015), and Nimitz’s Sea Power (E.R. Potter, ed., 1960). Naval Shiphandler’s Guide (James Barber, Jr., 2005), Watch Officer’s Guide (Stavridis et al.16th ed., 2020) and Dutton’s Nautical Navigation (Thomas Curter, 15th ed., 2004) which are also evaluated. 

Explorers (Chapters 14-21): Eight tomes published between 1950 and 2011 are recommended.  Across the Top of the World (James Delgado, 1999) details the quest for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic while The Endurance (Caroline Alexander, 1998) focuses on the Shackleton Antarctic expedition. Captain Cook: Master of the Seas (McLynn, 2011) view’s Cook’s South Seas voyages, 1768-1779, while Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World (1953) reviews underseas discoveries, and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Six Men Cross the Pacific on a Raft (1950) demonstrates that Polynesian to South America transit was possible. Cousteau’s and Heyerdahl’s efforts are subjects of documentary films.    

Sailors in Fiction (Chapters 22-35): The 14 books he describes were penned by a variety of authors whose writings range from science fiction (Jules Verne) and knowledgeable laymen (for example: Herman Melville, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Herman Wouk, Nicholas Monsarrat, and Ernest Hemingway) to seasoned naval officers (Edward L. “Ned” Beach and James Barber, Jr.). A number of his choices have also been made into motion pictures (some good and some bad) and he has selected some that have been made into motion pictures: The Bedford Incident (Mark Rascovich, 1963) a Cold War thriller with destroyer versus submarine featuring the fictional USS Bedford, and The Good Shepherd (C.S. Forester, 1955) a nautical and war novel with another fictive destroyer, USS Keeling, versus a wolfpack in the North Atlantic. The latter was made into a film in 2021with Tom Hanks commanding the “USS Greyhound “ and is not to be confused with “The Good Shepherd,” a 2006 American spy film focused on the OSS-to-CIA era produced and directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon. 

Another volume on the North Atlantic features a corvette, HMS Compass Rose, in the Cruel Sea (Nicholas Monserrat, 1951, the film isn’t mentioned), while in the Pacific, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny (1951, film with Humphrey Bogart 1954); Tom Heggen’s Mr. Roberts (1946, film starring Henry Fonda, 1955); and “gifted writer” Ned Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep (1983) is “especially good” but the motion picture is “not very good.” The Admiral recommends the novels and film versions of Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October as better choices. Many of these books, he notes, depict a variety of different issues about leadership. Stavridis also suggests several classics: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Verne, 1871); Moby Dick, or the Whale (Herman Melville, 1851, Gregory Peck’s film isn’t cited); Mutiny on the Bounty (Nordhoff and Hall 1932) and the movie with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, not the Clark Gabel film; Master and Commander (Patrick O’Brian, 1969) became a 2003 Russell Crowe film featuring “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and is the title of one among 20 volumes in O’Brian’s series. Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Life of Pi (Yann Martel, 2001) are cited for parables; and Moods of the Sea: Masterworks of Sea Poetry (George Solley and Eric Steinbaugh, 1981) are among other works selected.  

Sailors in Non-Fiction (Chapters 36-50): Admiral Stavridis discusses 15 volumes and covers a variety of topics included in several autobiographies and first-person accounts. He begins with an author and painter of things naval – Joseph M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Turner & the Sea (Christine Riding and Richard Johns, 2012). The selections include a volume on whaling, In the Heart of the Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick, 2000), the story of the Essex, which Stavridis places in the same class as Melville’s Moby Dick;  has recently been made into a motion picture. Books focusing upon geopolitics and naval campaigns include early works such as the venerable The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1890), as well as The Battle of Salamis (Barry Strauss, 2005), and  Empires of the Sea (George Crowley, 2008), both with Mediterranean settings. “Modern” works featuring combat at sea include Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945 (Evan Thomas, 2006); two leaders are American and two are Japanese. One Hundred Days (Admiral Sandy Woodward with Patrick Robinson, 1992), recounts the British campaign against Argentina in the Falklands.  

More personal stories about men against the sea are told in The Perfect Storm (Sebastian Junger, 1997) and Two Years before the Mast (Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1967); both translated into a half dozen foreign languages and versions made into films. Women in the sea service include Lady in the Navy (Joy Bright Hancock, 1972) an autobiographical account of a WAVES commander who served in both world wars, and the documentary She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea (Joan Druett, 2000) detailing bold female sailors over 2,500 years. Significantly included and appropriately titled is Trailblazer: The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral (Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. with Paul Stillwell, 2010), a splendid inclusion that a reader may contrast with Admiral George Dewey’s Autobiography written in 1913 with Frederick Palmer. Admiral Stavridis also makes a significant case for including The Seafarers (a 22 volume series prepared by Time-Life, 1978-81). 

The Sailor’s Bookshelf closes with a “Conclusion” (pp. 193-196) in which the author suggests that the reader: 1) keep reading about the oceans and 2) find new and better books; lastly, 3) he lists 15 additional books and a poem.  The “Afterword – A Course to Steer By” is written by Cdr. J. D. Kristenson, USN (pp. 197-201) who provides his own lists: Able Seamen’s List, (four books), Mate’s List (nine books), and Master’s List (cautionary tales).  Lastly, there are “Acknowledgments” (pp. 202-204): and “Notes” (pp. 205-214) 159 references to citations included in the fifty narratives and “Afterword.”  

The New York Times has described Admiral Stavridis as a “Renaissance admiral.” His resume certainly reflects this characterization and is reinforced by the book selections and insightful commentaries that appear in The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea. In this outstanding volume, the author shares his love of the sea and suggests that these are books valuable as a guide to sailors to better understand ourselves and the world around us. He succeeds in offering examples of leadership and heroism valuable to laypersons, members of the military in and beyond the Navy, whether novices or veterans. This book, like the Watch Officer’s Guide, provides a handbook of standards, to which readers could add Stavridis’s own works: Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command (Naval Institute Press, 2007) and The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO (Naval Institute Press, 2014).

Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D., is a USNI Golden Life Member.

The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea (Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2021).

The post Blog first appeared on Naval Historical Foundation.

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