Here’s a test. Ask a sailor—from senior officer to junior enlisted—to name three books on the current Navy reading list. How many will get even one? My guess is most won’t be able to name a single book. This was the case when I asked officers and enlisted (all 04 and below) from various commands. The informal, admittedly incomplete survey could be interpreted a few different ways. It could be that our reading program is a secret to many sailors. Or, more likely and more disconcerting, perhaps we do not value a culture of professional reading, whether a book title appears on the Navy’s list or that of The New York Times.
Readers in today’s Navy probably fall into one of two categories. The first I call tacticians. These sailors strive to earn their warfare qualifications early in their careers, maintain proficiency in their primary designator, and read very little outside of their working day. In a 20-year career, out of necessity they end up cracking some books at graduate or postgraduate school. They do what’s asked of them and do it well, but they do not seek professional development in reading something that is not directly related to their job. Certainly not fiction. These are the majority.
The other category I refer to as sailor-scholars. They carry out the same steps as do tacticians, but they do something more: They seek personal and professional knowledge in a great book that may not have a direct application to their primary job (they are also more likely to read Proceedings). Most important, they see professional reading as being vital to their growth as individuals in life, both in and outside of the workplace. Admirals Jim Stavridis and Hyman Rickover are two sailor-scholars who immediately come to mind.
The tactician needs to understand that just because a good book—either fiction such as Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny or nonfiction such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success—does not offer a solution to a problem at work or have an immediate practical application, this does not mean it has no value. Studies show that reading widely spurs creativity. Periods of insight, problem-solving, an “a-ha” moment, usually come when we least expect them. Reading can generate that spark. Author John Coleman notes in “For Those Who Want to Lead, Read” (Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 15 August 2012) that “deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.”
Unfortunately, tacticians who do read beyond what their duties demand often relegate it to bedtime when they are almost asleep. Part of this stems from the daily battle between nurturing our minds and carrying out our responsibilities, the fatigue of constantly anticipating the next email exchange, and addressing other must-do tasks. Reading a book is often thought of as a leisure activity, when in fact it can be much, much more.
How do tacticians become sailor-scholars? Teachers face the same question: What makes people want to read? Teachers, Navy leaders, and peers can encourage reading. But this must lead to self-discovery and, hopefully, insatiable curiosity. Those who consider themselves sailor-scholars—the minority—need to share their love of reading. They can promote discussion about great books, whether these are military biographies, current fiction, or a few titles from the Navy’s reading list. Books are usually enjoyed privately, but the experience can be shared with others. Enthusiasm for a good book can be infectious.
In one of his infamous interviews, Admiral Rickover asked then-Commander Elmo Zumwalt: “What have you read since graduation?” Zumwalt replied, “Plato.” Rickover picked and prodded Zumwalt on a range of subjects, from law to philosophy, before sticking him back in the broom closet to stew over his answers. Even though throwing officers in closets is inappropriate (but Zumwalt held his own quite well), it is vital that we communicate to other that reading has enriched our experiences in the Navy and guided us as sailors and citizens in a nation we strive to protect and lead.
A reading list is a great start. We’ll always need them. But we need more than a list if we want to create a culture of professional sailor-scholars.