Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We invite a participant to recommend five books and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.

For this installment, a version of which was published previously in 2019, Jacob Olidort explains why professional reading isn’t just a matter of reading the right books. It’s also about reading them the right way.

Books on How to Think

One of my most humbling experiences came shortly after receiving my doctorate in Islamic intellectual history when I read a newly released 600-page book, with original translations from a dozen languages, and carrying the simple title of What is Islam? As I had studied with its author, Shahab Ahmed, I correctly expected the book to be, as one reviewer put it, “not merely field changing, but the boldest and best thing I have read in any field.” Like its author, the book embraces rather than ignores contradictions, and pushes readers to question deeply their assumptions and frameworks for analyzing—in this case, per the book’s subtitle, what it means to be “Islamic” and why that label is meaningful to adepts. For me personally and professionally, reading a book centered on such a seemingly basic question after just having finished a doctorate on the topic could not have been better timed. In particular, as I entered the fast-paced world of policymaking and media headlines and the marketplace of “experts,” the book was both a reminder to be, and a tool for being, humble about what I know and don’t know, challenging assumptions and correctly framing data to accurately reflect phenomena for an informed but inexpert community.

Besides being a landmark work in my field, the work therefore became part of my curriculum of books on how to think—specifically, how to critically analyze and synthesize information, how to bring different perspectives together for a correct understanding, and how to ask the right questions of situations and information you are given. The fields of national security and foreign policy require such thinking, and in short time, and few individuals do this effectively. Among works in this genre are Ernest May and Richard Neustadt’s Thinking in Time, Gregory Treverton’s Intelligence for an Age of Terror and National Intelligence and Science, and Jacob Shapiro’s The Terrorist’s Dilemma.

A subset of works on thinking are works on strategy—a favorite Washington word that is used to such an extent that, to paraphrase Lawrence Freedman (who literally wrote the history of strategy), can mean everything and therefore can mean nothing. For the purposes of my reading list, strategy is a way of thinking for decision-making. In addition to Freedman’s Strategy, I have benefitted from works by Thomas Schelling (The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence) and Colin Gray.

Books on How to Write

Aside from mastery of substance and thinking, part of the job of being an expert (especially if one cares to be a useful, and therefore good, expert) is the ability to communicate. In particular, writing for decision-makers requires brevity, correct word choice, and an ability to anticipate what a decision-maker knows already so as to cut to the chase faster. A BLUF (bottom line up front) or executive summaries serves that function in the organization of a piece of writing. But assuming an important person is also a voracious reader (why else would she or he read your work in the first place?) and may decide to continue reading the entirety of what you wrote, you had better be sure what you wrote is what you meant to say and—if it is on a topic with policy relevance—that anything written is fair game to be taken as actionable policy guidance.

In his On Writing, Stephen King emphasizes that there is no better or more effective way to learn how to write well than to read good writing. (Another added plus is that you can assume good writing is something senior decision-makers read and will give an additional insight into their frames of reference). Some authors and titles I would recommend in this genre (some of whom King recommends in the list of books that helped him write) include Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Updike’s Rabbit series, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . . ., Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Goodbye Columbus, and Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

Books on How to Live

This section heading may be misleading, so a word of clarification. Far from how-to self-help guides, what I mean by “how to live” works are books written by individuals who have lived big (not necessarily long) lives and who have lessons to impart. A big life does not necessarily mean one of fame (although some have achieved this too) but rather one that includes a range of experiences, often difficult ones. There tend to be few books in this genre since there have been comparatively few truly big moments in history (whether tragic or great), few who have survived to describe them, and still fewer who have described them well. This rare coincidence means that books on how to live are both those on how to think and how to write, but are also much more. It is also this category of books that are the ones worth rereading.

At the top of my list would be the Memoirs and Selected Letters of Ulysses S. Grant (and, as a compendium volume, I would recommend Ronald White’s biography, American Ulysses). It is difficult to read his memoirs and think that this was a work written from a place of deep desperation and in a short period of time. The hero of the Appomattox and former president of the United States found himself penniless and racing against time as he battled throat cancer at the end of his life. And yet Grant was able to reach far into the details of his early travels and his campaign plans to reveal an individual who cared deeply for the human condition and making correct decisions in difficult situations. One favorite example is his vivid description of the first bullfight he witnessed while serving in the Mexican War, and his impression of the “sickening” sight, writing, “I could not see how human beings could enjoy the sufferings of beasts, and often of men, as they seemed to do on these occasions.”

Other works in this category I would recommend are Winston Churchill’s The Second World War and his River War, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and If This is a Man, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, and Wislawa Szymborska’s Map: Collected and Last Poems.

Dr. Jacob Olidort is the director of research at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. A former nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute, he previously taught at American University and George Washington University and has served in a variety of national security roles across the US government.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Christa Lohman