“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, learning from others who went before you, you are functionally illiterate – you can’t coach and you can’t lead.  …History lights the often dark path ahead; even if it’s a dim light, it’s better than none. If you can’t be additive as a leader, you’re just like a potted plant in the corner of a hotel lobby: you look pretty, but you’re not adding substance to the organization’s mission.”

General James Mattis[a]

Mattis got it right.  Annually, I have argued the importance of reading books to sharpen one’s purpose and performance as a leader (see  20112012201320142015201620172018, 2019,  2020[b] and 2022.  Email, social media, and the digital echo chambers that surround us prompt the absorption of ideas in small bites, rather than big chewy meals.  Last year’s Gallup survey showed a decline in the average number of books an American reads per year.[c]  The steepest decline occurred among college graduates.

My advice: don’t participate in this trend.  If you do, you risk becoming the “potted plant” at which James Mattis scoffs.  Reading well promotes the ability to write well, speak effectively, and to be “additive as a leader.”

Serious reading is intentional.  I read a lot (averaging a book per week), mostly because I like to, and partly because it’s key to my calling as an educator, writer, and adviser.  I usually have one or more books going and within reach.  And I follow reviews of new books and recommendations of classics.  But being intentional requires much more.  How to proceed?

  1. Make reading a habit: read often; read regularly. Reading for even 20 minutes a day builds continuity with the narrative and argument of a book that can help you truly engage with its ideas.
  2. Read good stuff: the quality of the books you read matters more than quantity. If you have been out of practice for a while, turn to some authors whose works are acclaimed as the best–the Internet is studded with such lists (for instance, see here, here, and here).  Also, look for books that speak to your situation (e.g., making sense of world crises, nurturing a family, building an organization, planning a trip abroad, taking a risk of some kind).  But beware of self-help books, most of which turn out to reduce genuine insights to banal checklists. The best books reflect a special gift, point of view, research, or life experience.  In the past, I have advised, “don’t read junk.”  Well, romance novels, pulp fiction, and other guilty pleasures might help to get you going; but keep them as a condiment rather than a main course.
  3. Read in a good place. Quell distractions: turn off the cell phone; put on noise-cancelling earphones if necessary.   I love to read on airplane flights (never watch movies there).
  4. Take your time. Relish the words and paragraphs as the author presents them to you.  Don’t read book summaries or speed-read.
  5. Read for plot[d]—this means that you should read critically. If you are reading fiction, work at understanding the narrative: who are the key characters?  What are the motivating problems?  What are the actions and turning points by which the plot unfolds?  For non-fiction, what is the author’s argument?  How well supported is the thesis with analysis and evidence?  What’s new here?  Is this a complement or substitute to what others have written on the topic?  Do you buy the author’s inferences and conclusions?  How did the book affect your views?  Why?  What are some lessons that you can carry from the book?
  6. Make notes. I underline, dog-ear, and highlight mercilessly (only in books that I own!)  My marginal notes (usually in pen) help me in summarizing the book later. For professional reading, I produce a synopsis of each chapter in the book, along with selected quotations and file the notes on my hard drive.
  7. No need to finish a boring or bad book. Give any book 50-100 pages to hook you, then either commit to the end or quit and go on to another.
  8. Tell someone what you read, and why. Doing so sets an example for others.  And it reinforces your own recall—this is why university seminars, and the case method of instruction are so effective.  Try reading a book with others.  Talking with others often sparks a conversation about the biases one brings to a book.  Reading together prompts self-discovery.
  9. Follow your vibe. Pay attention to what resonates with you and pursue it to more good books.
  10. Re-read the best books. Having enjoyed a book, save it and return to it every so often.  You will find that with the passage of time one draws new insights about yourself.

Here are some of my favorite books that I read in 2023.

Business and Finance

Phil Knight, Shoe Dog. This is the memoir by the iconic founder of the iconic athletic shoe company, Nike, Inc. from its startup in 1962 to its initial public stock offering in 1980.  Unlike most hagiographic memoirs, Knight is transparent about several big mistakes and errors of judgment.  His candor makes the book an excellent case study for students and rising business leaders.  A key lesson regards sustainable growth, that is, growth at a rate consistent with the internal profitability of the firm.  Rapid growth is a goal of so many young firms; but a company can grow too fast.  At several points, Nike teetered on the edge of financial default as it outgrew the lending capacity of its banks, supplier financing, and loans from friends-family-employees.  There were bitter disputes with competitors, suppliers, investors, employees, and governments–all are useful reminders to today’s entrepreneurs that the path to building a company is strewn with obstacles. Nike’s several near-death experiences gives the book a page-turning velocity.  And the competitive spirit of the company facing large and well-funded competitors prompts the reader to root for the underdog.  One must admire the company’s grit and audacity.  Knight wrote,

“You are remembered for the rules you break…We were the kind of people who simply couldn’t put up with corporate nonsense.  We were the kind of people who wanted our work to be play.  But meaningful play.  We were trying to slay Goliath [Adidas]…We were trying to create a brand, I said, but also a culture.  We were fighting against conformity, against boringness, against drudgery.  More than a product, we were trying to sell an idea—a spirit.”[e]

Knight presents himself as highly competitive, growth-oriented, and willing to take risks that border on the extreme.  His charisma and the prominence of Nike make this an appealing story, especially to students.  Athletes and the public benefited from his relentless pursuit of quality and a better shoe.  And he created enormous wealth for himself and his investors.  He has written an inspiring memoir of struggle and business success that qualifies him for a place in the Pantheon of innovators with the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk.  Yet, students will question his personal example.  His devotion to athleticism and fitness contrasts with overwork, bad eating habits and consumption of huge amounts of alcohol.  His dedication to the company and his colleagues contrasts with intemperate outbursts and the neglect of his children, a regret that he poignantly explains in the final chapter.  A question that looms over Knight’s story is whether he made the right choices in his work and life.  Is he an exemplar to be imitated or a cautionary tale?

Sebastian Mallaby, The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future.  This is both a history of the field of venture capital and a map of the current terrain including the incentives, behavior, and outcomes of venture finance.  Drawing on extraordinary access to VC leaders and his archival research, Mallaby surveys stunning successes and dreadful losses.  The phrase, “power law,” refers to the distribution of payoffs across a portfolio of venture investments: a few stunning successes compensate for losses on other investments and still leave a healthy profit for investors.  Hence, the mindset of venture investors focuses on finding the moonshot geniuses who create entirely new fields such as electric vehicles, space travel, digital finance, cryptocurrencies, plant-based meat.  First-mover advantages can create winner-take-all outcomes that motivate aggressive search and investment styles. In an example of “blitzscaling,” SoftBank invested or committed over $16 billion in WeWork, only to write it off upon the company’s filing for bankruptcy this month.  Mallaby’s book is packed with numerous examples of long-shot investments that paid off immensely, and others that crashed ignominiously.  Though Mallaby offers a sympathetic treatment of venture capital, his profiles of the innovative geniuses and prominent VCs reveal some difficult personalities: driven, outspoken, tolerant of high risk, and rejecting conventional wisdom. Many examples suggest that genuine innovations come not from “experts” but from outsiders; that nimbleness and resilience beat inflexibility and bureaucracy; and that companies sponsored by VCs must get big or go home.  Venture capital is a seedbed for business revolution.  Mallaby writes,

“The revolutions that will matter—the big disruptions that create wealth for inventors and anxiety for workers, or that scramble the geopolitical balance and alter human relations—cannot be predicted based on extrapolations of past data, precisely because such revolutions are so thoroughly disruptive.  Rather, they will emerge as a result of forces that are too complex to forecast—from the primordial soup of tinkerers and hackers and hubristic dreamers—and all you can know is that the work in ten years will be excitingly different.  Mature, comfortable societies, dominated by people who analyze every probability and manage every risk, should come to terms with a tomorrow that cannot be foreseen.  The future can be discovered by means of iterative, venture-backed experiments.  It cannot be predicted.”[f]

Roger Lowenstein, Ways and Means.  This is a very valuable book for any student of finance, financial crises, politics, public policy-making, or the Civil War.  The years 1861 to 1865 entailed a massive pivot for the United States militarily, socially, politically—and not least, economically.  The durable popular fascination with the Civil War tends to ignore the dramatic changes in the nation’s currency, banking system, national debt, currency exchange rates, and the orthodox economic policies of that time.  Lowenstein’s key argument is that the Civil War sprouted an economic juggernaut and prompted the adoption of what Alexander Hamilton had advocated at the founding of the country some 70 years earlier: a muscular federal government financed through debt issuance, a national currency, a federally-regulated banking system, a national income tax, an industrial policy motivated by a vision of industrial expansion, and investment in infrastructure.  Lowenstein explains this tectonic shift as an economic necessity: raise money to pay for the war or lose the South.  The financial revolution was staggering in its durable impact, eclipsing virtually all other periods in U.S. economic history.  Each of our major wars changed our finances and economics profoundly.  Lowenstein gives an excellent illustration of why.  Equally interesting is Lowenstein’s profile of Salmon P. Chase, President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, who reluctantly sponsored the revolutionary changes and then after the war attempted to turn back the clock, but failed.

John Shovlin, Trading with the Enemy: Britain, France, and the 18th-Century Quest for a Peaceful World Order.  Carl von Clausewitz said that war is a continuation of politics by other means.  Much the same could be said of cross-border trade.  As we are (re)discovering in the 2020s, economic competition among nations can morph into hostile behavior (spying, theft or denial of resources, propaganda, hot rhetoric, arrests or assassinations of key people) and possible war.  Shovlin’s excellent book reveals that war is not the necessary consequence of economic competition.  Britain and France competed for European leadership in the 18th century, waging war eight times from 1688 to the French Revolution.   Between (and in the midst of) hostilities, diplomats and businesspeople jockeyed for terms of trade that they hoped would cement a peaceful European order.  Shovlin asks what drove the relentless toggling between war and peace.  He argues that capitalists seeking to make money, and government officials seeking geopolitical hegemony drove the cycles.  One can think of many exceptions to Shovlin’s generalization, but his deep archival research and presentation in the book sustains the notion of the intertwined relationship.  By 1815, Britain had surpassed France as the hegemon of Europe, largely because of the comparative strength of Britain’s economic and political institutions. Notably, Britain was able to finance war and colonial expansion more effectively and efficiently than was France.  Well-written and impressively documented, this book offers a number of lessons for major countries today.


Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution.  This book is an impressive study of one of the most important regime changes in history.  A sweeping survey of events and individuals, based on immense archival research, puncturing conventional wisdom, and very well written, this book describes the replacement of English King James II by his daughter, Mary II and her husband, William III of Orange, the “William & Mary” known well here in Virginia.  Pincus’s argument is that this revolution was not about religion (the conflict between Catholics and Protestants), but rather was caused by rapid modernization in English society.  Shocking change in the late 17th century—cultural, technological, geopolitical, commercial, and financial—challenged the English people and threatened the royal court’s increasingly authoritarian rule.  This book merits the attention of a business leader for at least four reasons.  First, the “Glorious Revolution” marks the emergence of liberal democracy, rule of law, parliamentary sovereignty, and the rights that underpin a buoyant market economy, such as property, sanctity of contracts, trial by jury, freedoms of speech and assembly, etc.  To critically assess the chatter today about the endangerment of democratic capitalism, it can help to know how this system arose.  Second, 1688 had a massive influence on political and economic thought that led to the American Revolution and Constitution.  The writings of Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and others reflected notions of rule by the people and government support for economic modernization that trace back to England in the late seventeenth century.  Third, an understanding of 1688 can help to make sense of other revolutions (America, Russia, Iran, for instance).  As Hemingway said about bankruptcy, revolutions begin slowly and end quite rapidly–King James II thought he had the support of the English people, until he didn’t.  And finally, Pincus’s history offers an antidote to the “hyperspecialization of history…accessible to ever narrower audiences…[that makes it] impossible to specify broad revolutionary shifts and identify their causes.”[g]  We could lay the same criticism at the feet of researchers in business and economics.  Pincus calls for “reintegration” of specialties to “specify broad revolutionary shifts and identify their causes.”[h]

Catherine Manfre, Not There Yet: Living Through Egypt, Love, and Uncertainty. This memoir by my former student (Darden MBA 2014) describes living in Egypt through the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the absolute ruler.  The book is part travelogue, part romance (she finds the man she will marry), and part social commentary.  In this last dimension, her perspective complements Steven Pincus’s nicely.  Where Pincus is very broadscale, Manfre is focused and on-the-ground; where Pincus draws on archival research, Manfre writes from lived experience.  Her command of Arabic, her training in Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, and her studies at American University in Cairo starting in 2009 enabled her to witness the maelstrom of the revolution starting on January 25, 2011.  No matter how strong authoritarian rule is, it tends not to be resilient; its inflexibility renders it brittle and vulnerable to shocks. Symptoms of brittleness abound.  Manfre arrived in Cairo to see Mubarak’s image everywhere: in shops and restaurants, on lampposts, and in big banners across thoroughfares.  She surmised that it aimed to “scare away opposition and cement his power.  Those citizens who chose to display a picture of the President either wanted to ward off suspicion by the police of being anything but a regime supporter or signal an openness to accepting the economic spoils of political power.”[i]  Authoritarianism erodes the rule of law.  A taxi driver told Catherine, “The difference between us [Egyptians] and them [US] isn’t in democracy…but the difference is in the law.  They have laws that are enforced, while we don’t.”[j]  Unemployment, economic inequality, and a housing shortage led to a “kind of poverty that was devoid of hope.”[k]  Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment and assault: “Harassment was so common that it went right after the weather in our nightly roommate debriefs about the day.”[l]  The Egyptian police were “well-known for corruption and intense brutality against political dissidents and ordinary citizens alike.”[m] Political unrest gathered momentum after parliamentary elections in 2010.  Mass protests prompted brutal crackdowns by police, which prompted more unrest.  A lost soccer match with Algeria spawned widespread street riots.  On the day of revolution, the government escalated, sending tanks into the streets.  The cell phone system and internet went silent, so people left their homes to go into the streets to learn what was happening.  Gunfire broke out.  Stores were looted.  Police stations and the headquarters of the opposition political party were torched.  Thugs rumored to be hired by the government roamed the city.  In a narrow escape, Manfre managed to take a flight to Dubai and on to Europe.  Over the ensuing weeks, nightly street riots across Egypt finally prompted the military to abandon Mubarak, who stepped down.  In due course, her Egyptian fiancé joined her; they married, and now live in the US. She reflected on the classic playbook for authoritarians (“create fear and distrust among the population, use the state-owned media to create alternative narratives, and position itself as the sole party able to establish stability and peace.”[n] But the playbook failed in 2011: social media informed the public, which was not deterred by intimidation; and virtually all segments of Egyptian society had had enough of Mubarak’s rule.  The spontaneous wave of unrest across the Middle East—the “Arab Spring”—protested authoritarian rule and triggered regime changes across the region.

Mid-Twentieth Century

Eric Larson, In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Improbably, an introverted professor at the University of Chicago was appointed in 1933 to be the US ambassador to Germany.  He arrived with wife, son, and outlandish daughter as Hitler and the Nazis took control of the country and accelerated their persecution of Jews and other minorities.   The daughter, had love affairs with various Nazi officials and a staff member of the Soviet Union’s embassy before she realized their moral corruption.  The ambassador meets Hitler, Goering, and other high-level Nazi officials and in his diary and memos offers a remarkable profile of the regime.  As violence rises, the ambassador concludes that the regime is truly evil and tries to persuade the U.S. State Department and President Roosevelt to object to the violence and to increase the quota of immigrants from Germany—but he largely fails.  This book offers a remarkable profile of the sinister regime, the denialism and slow awakening of American consciousness, and the difficulties of diplomatic representation.  Anchored in rich archival research, well-written, and suspenseful, the book complements the best histories of the Nazi regime.

Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House.  I visited central Germany this year, and stumbled upon the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, a shrine to the Bauhaus design movement founded in 1919 and to its leading lights, including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and other pillars in the history of architecture.  Hitler shut down the Bauhaus school in 1933, prompting leaders of the movement to emigrate—many to the U.S. where the movement’s design principles spread across the country.  Of interest to me was the organization of the Bauhaus school as a collective with utopian aspirations.  The history of utopian collectives shows that the governance of egalitarian collectives tends to morph into oligarchy and then dictatorship—the Bauhaus school showed similar symptoms.  Much of the work produced by the Bauhaus movement strikes me as sterile and uninviting, but what do I know?  Maybe I’m just unenlightened. It turns out that Bauhaus struck Tom Wolfe in similar ways.  Wolfe, the novelist, journalist, and cultural critic published in 1981 this blistering assessment of Bauhaus design.  At the core of Wolfe’s criticism is a charge of hypocrisy.  He says that Bauhaus preached minimalism, egalitarianism, and humility and produced costly construction, monumentalism and artsy elitism.  In summing up the legacy of Bauhaus, Wolfe argued that its design vision fit poorly with postwar America: “The way Americans lived made the rest of mankind stare with envy or disgust but always with awe.  In short, this has been America’s period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing, wahoo-yahoo youthful rampage—and what architecture has she to show for it?  An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness as the height of bad taste.  We brace for a barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world—and hear a cough at a concert.”[o]   In modern culture, abstract theories about how we should live come and go.  And they tend to go when the theories chafe with how people want to live.  We should always listen (critically) to the theorists, because their ideas might have a kernel of truth that can serve us well.  But the Bauhaus kernel of pure design got lost in its own ideology.  Wolfe’s short book is valuable both for its historical perspective and its contemporary relevance.

Peter Clarke, Mr. Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer.  This book surprised me.  Biographies and memoirs of Churchill portray him as a full-time politician who did some writing on the side.  Clarke argues just the opposite.  Churchill was almost always writing and did so at professional scale, with a staff of researchers and secretaries, engagement with publishers at the most senior levels, and a constant eye toward sales.  Royalties and commissions, rather than from his pay as a Member of Parliament or a Minister of State were the mainstays of his lifestyle.  And he was compensated quite well for his labors, which Clarke documents in impressive detail.  I most enjoyed Clarke’s illumination of Churchill’s growth as a writer from part-time journalist at the start of his career to winner of the Nobel Prize in literature for his biography of John Churchill, one of England’s greatest generals and Winston’s ancestor.  His writing style evolved and strengthened over the years.  His strong view of the ideal world order shaped what he had to say and how he said it.  He envisioned a union of the English-speaking peoples that became the crux of British alliances in World War II and the thesis of a four-volume treatise by the same name.  Equally interesting are Churchill’s foibles as a writer: a tendency to overcommit and procrastinate, to prevaricate with publishers, and to spend money at prodigious rates.  This is a sympathetic biography that casts Churchill in a new light.  Well written and a congenial read, I recommend it.


Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.  Most people shy away from mathematics once formal education is finished or unless a professional calling requires its continuance.  Ellenberg argues to the contrary that mathematical thinking is something to be exercised every day.  He illustrates his point in 19 chapters that cover interesting topics such as lotteries (expected value), how much time to spend in airports (probability), Netflix movie recommendations (Bayes Theorem), obesity and height (regression to the mean), basketball statistics (the “hot hand” controversy), ranked voting (mathematical consistency), and the Laffer Curve (nonlinearity) and many others.  This book hooked me in the introduction with a story from World War II: the US government wanted to know where to put armor on airplanes to reduce the odds of being shot down.  Someone counted bullet holes, noted lots of hits in the fuselages, and recommended armoring the body of airplanes.  But a mathematician came along and argued that the recommendation was based on a biased sample consisting of only those planes that survived.  Only by assessing where the survivors weren’t hit could one know what to armor.  The mathematician noted that the survivors took few hits to the engines and by inference concluded that the planes took hits to the engines, which accounted for losses; he recommended armoring the airplanes’ engines, not fuselages.  The government adopted the mathematician’s recommendation and the loss rate declined. The vignette is an illustration of the idea of survivorship bias.  This book will appeal to all readers, those who are math-friendly, and those who are math-anxious.  Each chapter contains equations, concepts, and graphs that may daunt a novice.  Yet Ellenberg cradles the math in prose that is highly accessible to the general reader and does so with links to questions and problems that most people confront regularly.  This book has been an international bestseller since its publication in 2014 and will stretch your mind.

Crime and Justice

Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.  These two books belong on any list of classic fiction.  I read them years ago and returned to them this year seeking pure entertainment.  What I rediscovered were two volumes of suspense, stirring action, and revenge.  The Count… is a story of a young man in 1815, Edmond Dantes, who was wrongfully imprisoned for life.  An elderly fellow prisoner befriends Dantes, and then dies, after giving him the secret to a massive fortune.  Dantes escapes from the prison and with the help of the fortune eventually destroys those who tried to destroy him.  The intricate steps by which Dantes works his way into the top echelon of French society to execute the downfall of his adversaries is the genius of the story.

The Three Musketeers is the swashbuckling story of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis (the three musketeers), and a young musketeer wannabe, d’Artagnan, in 1625, who run afoul of the evil Cardinal Richelieu, who plots to dominate France.  Through excellent swordsmanship and derring-do, the four heroes frustrate Richelieu’s schemes, and the wannabe becomes a full-fledged musketeer.  Hollywood has brought numerous versions of The Three Musketeers to the silver screen, my favorite of which was the 1973 version with Michael York, Raquel Welch, and other notables.

Michael Finkel The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crimes, and a Dangerous Obsession.  This book describes a spree of art museum thefts by a young Frenchman between 1994 and 2001 that amounted to over 300 items having a value of around $2 billion.  Stephane Breitwieser, emerges as the most prolific art thief of all time.  What motivated him, how he succeeded, and why it took so long to catch him are the compelling mysteries that the book resolves.  A highly introverted individual, he lived in the attic of his mother’s house.  He craved art from the Renaissance and Baroque eras as a means of connection with those times long past.  With the help of his girlfriend, he exploited the lax security measures at small and medium-size museums.  Repeatedly, he or his girlfriend walked out the front door of the museums with artwork stashed in a pocket, under a large raincoat, or in a shoulder bag.  Often, the absence of the item was not discovered until well after the theft, frustrating the ability of police to track the thieves.  Of most significance is the fact that Breitwieser sold none of his acquisitions, also preventing discovery.  He simply wanted to build a private collection that he could enjoy.  But he also displayed delusions, cockiness, and reckless behavior that ultimately landed him in jail.  This is a crime story based on detailed research and study of trial transcripts, police interviews, and some of the author’s own field interviews.

John Mortimer, Rumpole Omnibus and The Second Rumpole Omnibus.  These collections of short stories are treasures to which I return every so often for their ingenuity, rich character portrayal, humor, and suspense.  Horace Rumpole is a criminal defense barrister in London (like a legal aid lawyer in the US) whose irreverent attitude toward judges, the aristocracy, his professional associates, and even his wife (whom Rumpole calls “She Who Must Be Obeyed”) leavens the wily courtroom jockeying.  Rumpole’s motto is “never plead guilty” which in most stories proves to have been the right advice.  When accused of shady tactics to gain the acquittal of a client, Rumpole responded that “I’m not here to get my client acquitted; I’m here to find the truth.”  These short stories became the foundation for a British Broadcasting Corporation series of 44 episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-92).

Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer.  Each year I have endorsed the mystery novels by Michael Connelly, about detective Hieronymus Bosch. The Lincoln Lawyer commences another mystery series by Connelly based on the character of Mickey Haller, a criminal defense lawyer.  Haller operates mainly out of the back seat of a Lincoln automobile because he is constantly dashing from one courthouse to the next or to meetings with clients, investigators, or other lawyers.  A chaired professor at UVA Law School alerted me to the Haller novels when said that she read all the series to learn more about courtroom procedure!  The story in the Lincoln Lawyer revolves around Haller’s defense of a Los Angeles playboy who claims to have been framed for an attempted murder.  Haller gains the acquittal of the client with some ingenious courtroom tactics, after which he learned that the client actually was guilty as charged.  I won’t spoil the ending, but how Haller deals with the moral dilemma arising from the sanctity of attorney-client privilege is a surprising conclusion.  This book was the source of the 2011 movie by the same name, starring Matthew McConaughey.


Before going to Iraq in 2004, General James Mattis replied by email to a colleague who commented that he was too busy to read.  Mattis’s reply is a classic that is a worthy reminder for any leader in business, public service, or not-for-profit organizations.  The email shows that he read with purpose, compared writers on a similar topic, re-read the same writers, took notes, communicated to others the impact of what he had read, and generally set an example to others about the importance of reading—these are some of the good reading qualities I noted above.  Mattis was never too busy to read.  I offer the full email as a conclusion to this post:

[Dear, “Bill”]

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

With [Task Force] 58, I had w/ me Slim’s book, books about the Russian and British experiences in [Afghanistan], and a couple others. Going into Iraq, “The Siege” (about the Brits’ defeat at Al Kut in WW I) was req’d reading for field grade officers. I also had Slim’s book; reviewed T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; a good book about the life of Gertrude Bell (the Brit archaeologist who virtually founded the modern Iraq state in the aftermath of WW I and the fall of the Ottoman empire); and “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. I also went deeply into Liddell Hart’s book on Sherman, and Fuller’s book on Alexander the Great got a lot of my attention (although I never imagined that my HQ would end up only 500 meters from where he lay in state in Babylon).

Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.

For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say … “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, versus just reading) the men who have gone before us.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don’t know a hell of a lot more than just the [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures]? What happens when you’re on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher [Headquarters] can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy’s adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you don’t know what the warning signs are — that your unit’s preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?

Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.

This is not new to the USMC approach to warfighting — Going into Kuwait 12 years ago, I read (and reread) Rommel’s Papers (remember “Kampstaffel”?), Montgomery’s book (“Eyes Officers”…), “Grant Takes Command” (need for commanders to get along, “commanders’ relationships” being more important than “command relationships”), and some others.

As a result, the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn’t waste their lives because I didn’t have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields.

Hope this answers your question…. I will cc my ADC in the event he can add to this. He is the only officer I know who has read more than I.[p]


[a] Quoted in “Seven Best Quotes from Gen. Jim Mattis,” Military Times, https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/12/21/7-best-quotes-from-the-legendary-gen-jim-mattis/.

[b] In 2021, I took a pandemic break from offering my annual recommended readings.

[c] “Americans Reading Fewer Books Than In the Past,” Gallup (January 10, 2022, https://news.gallup.com/poll/388541/americans-reading-fewer-books-past.aspx

[d] See Peter Brooks, Reading for Plot.

[e] Knight, Shoe Dog, pp. 228 and 250 (Kindle edition).

[f] Mallaby, Power Law, pp. 11-12 (Kindle edition).

[g] Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, p. 486.

[h] ibid.

[i] Manfre, Not There Yet, pp. 61-2.

[j] Ibid. p.88.

[k] Ibid. p. 100.

[l] Ibid. p. 120.

[m] Ibid. p. 123.

[n] Ibid. p. 178.

[o] Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, p. 53.

[p] “Read the General Mattis Email That Went Viral,” (May 10, 2013) Washington Free Beacon,  https://freebeacon.com/national-security/read-the-general-mattis-email-that-went-viral/