THE SAILOR’S BOOKSHELF: FIFTY BOOKS TO KNOW THE SEA

December 20, 2022
Posted by: REAR ADMIRAL PETER SPARKES

This charming, easy reading book is written by an author well known to readers of the Naval Review: Admiral James Stavridis USN (Retd), formerly a Strategic Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and now a prolific, much published writer.

Many of us have collected a wide variety of maritime books and related literature during our careers; I have even managed to read and be allowed to keep hold of some of mine…. Our bookshelves often reflect our identity – or perhaps the person we would wish to be – our influences and our interests. The sense of a “bookshelf defining an individual was very much brought to life for me during ‘Lockdown’”. It was a welcome distraction to spy the bookshelves of others’ during interminable ‘Zoom’ and ‘MS Teams’ business calls, whilst working from home. Admiral James gives us an interesting insight into those books and experiences that have shaped his own life and stellar career as a naval and strategic leader. With real humility and the occasional wistful tale, he recounts, inter alia, how as a Midshipman, he learned his navigational craft by reading Dutton’s Nautical Navigation, and as the outgoing Commanding Officer of USS Barry, his officers bought him the complete works of Patrick O’Brian, together with a signed first edition of The Commodore, his next rank on promotion.

The author’s recommended reading selection will appeal to sea-goers and non-sea-goers alike. The Sailor’s Bookshelf is divided into four main categories: ‘The Oceans’, ‘Explorers’, ‘Sailors in Fiction’, and ‘Sailors in Non-Fiction’. Admiral James’ synoptic style evocates tales and experiences of life at sea. The result is a navigational aid that steers readers through the realm of maritime literature, covering a broad spectrum of naval and marine subjects, ranging from: navigational science and horology; to the aesthetics of the sea; from historical exploration, to the contemporary issues facing those at sea; from the solitude of solo yachtsman sailing around the world, to the camaraderie of a corvette’s ship’s company during the Battle of the Atlantic (the indispensable Cruel Sea, obviously).

Among the eclectic, but very thoughtful selection contained herein, are synopses of classic works of fiction, such as MobyDick and The Perfect Storm – stories that pit men and women against the sea. There are recommended books on today’s maritime ecological and strategic challenges (The Outlaw Ocean – Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier); biographical celebrations of great achievements by luminaries such as Jacques Cousteau; and the lessons that we can learn from historic economic competition (Cod) and, by extension the often resultant conflicts at sea. I particularly enjoyed the author’s shortlist of books on the explorers of the 18th and 19th century, notably James Cook, and even reading some of the poetry that resonates with the send of a wave. Many of the included titles will be familiar to readers of the Naval Review, while others, are likely to be less well-known, but they will undoubtedly become welcome additions to your collection, in time. Admiral Stavridis has chosen books that have been published relatively recently, and he recommends other works which have been long been out of print, that still deserve recognition and may need to be sourced online. This is a book that encourages one to read a little and learn a lot.

I do own a number of the books listed in Admiral Stavridis’ collection, including his own influential book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (which he offers as extension reading to the notable, earlier book of the same title by Admiral Chester Nimitz). I couldn’t help but smile at how each of the books that I had already read had influenced and affected me.  Others will read this compendium and contemplate other maritime books that they feel should have been included in the Fifty Books to Know the Sea. That, perhaps, is part of the attraction of this book for me; my naval book collection is not yet complete, despite what my wife, Karen, might think…..