Each year, I try to read a wide variety of books — both fiction and non-fiction, long and short, prose and poetry. From the list of books I have worked through, most suggested by colleagues, awards, or strong reviews, I try to sum up as the year ends with the best five that I have read. As a general proposition, they are books that have come out in the past year, but occasionally I reach back a few years or even a decade or more, to find a book that truly talks to the times.

Given my new job as dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy here at Tufts, I have been doing a great deal of reading in the international sphere, so this year’s collection is focused in that direction. While these books do not purport to completely explain a complicated and unruly world, they all certainly helped me as I wrestled with the big issues affecting the globe today.

I look forward to hearing from readers of this blog about YOUR top books of 2013 — by sharing our reading, we can all learn and integrate our ideas. No one of us is a smart as all of us reading together, so please add your top 5 to the comments section below.

 

The Circle Book by Dave EggersThe Circle,” by Dave Eggers.  One of the most original pure writers of our time, Dave Eggers has written movingly and brilliantly about a wild variety of topics, from child-rearing to globalization.  In his haunting novel “The Circle,” he turns his imagination to a slightly dystopian near-future in which a commercial entity resembling a merge of Google/Facebook/Twitter/Amazon begins to slowly but surely enter every zone of our private lives.  It is the world of Orwell’s 1984 with a much softer touch.  Sound familiar?  In terms of helping think about the implications of the collision of privacy, surveillance, commercial, and governmental cyber, this page-turning novel is superb.

 

"The Orphan Master's Son," by Adam JohnsonThe Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson.  A beautifully realized novel about the life and times of a North Korean special operations soldier who understands the tragedy of his society and seeks in his own way to undermine it by living a fulfilled life.  By turns tragic, brutal, hilarious, sentimental, and ultimately inspiring, this  is an inside look into a regime that is destroying its people in ever more creative ways — and of the indomitable human spirit that will ultimately doom that totalitarian nightmare to failure.  Watching real world events unfold in North Korea — from family executions to NBA basketball stars — it truly seems reality is stranger than fiction; but this is a good place to learn about the inside world of the dear young leader.

 

kaplanThe Revenge of Geography,” by Robert Kaplan.  One of the top strategic analysts of today’s world, Robert Kaplan has helped explain the Balkans, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and many other confounding zones of the globe.  In his new work of non-fiction he persuasively argues that geography is destiny for nations, despite all the changes wrought by *globalization.*  This is a marvelous example of “applied history,” as Kaplan takes the lessons of history and geography and applies them to help predict the future.

At The Fletcher School we have chosen this book as our inaugural “#FletcherReads” session and will do a special presentation with the author in late January after providing copies to our students and faculty over the winter break.  Here are more details on how you can participate in the Robert Kaplan event, which will be streaming online.

 

“The Goldfinch," by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt.  In a lyrical novel that is very hard to categorize but easy to adore, Donna Tartt has written a masterwork with enormous verve, energy, and sentiment.  It is by turns an education in adolescent coming of age, global crime rings, advanced drug use, furniture making, dealing in antiques, Manhattan high society, and the mysteries of the art world.  Revolving around the life journey of a young boy whose mother is killed in a terrorist explosion which leaves him in possession of a priceless painting (the Goldfinch of the title), we follow him for a decade as his life unfolds in unexpected ways — always showing us that art matters deeply, and that the pain of life can at least be somewhat balanced by the beauty we can create and endlessly admire.

 

Peter Singer and Allan FriedmanCybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know,” by Peter Singer and Allan Friedman.  A very practical, readable, and workmanlike accounting of the unfolding giant issue of our time: the cyber world and how to deal with it.  Much of the strum and drang of the international world this past year, of course, revolved around the Snowden disclosers and resultant fallout.  If you think that was bad, I have two words for you after reading this book:  buckle up.  Everyone doing analysis in the international sphere should read this instant classic.

We’re thrilled to welcome Peter to The Fletcher School on April 14 for a discussion about cyber.

8 Responses to My Top 5 Book Picks of 2013

  1. Camelia Georgescu says:

    Thanks for the advice!

  2. Vasili Liarakos says:

    Dear Admiral Stavridis !

    Thank you for sharing and Happy New Year wishes.

    Best regards,

    Vasili N Liarakos
    IBM Corporation
    Vienna – Austria

  3. Gordon Emmanuel says:

    Sir,

    Recommend “Out of the Mountains” by David Kilcullen. This book presents the future threat environment as being urban and littoral. He identifies (4) different trends that cause him to come to this conclusion.

    (1) Population Growth
    (2) Urbanization
    (3) Littoralization
    (4) Network Connectedness

    With the first (3) being self explanatory, he focuses heavily on the network connectedness trend that has allowed groups to communicate in an unprecedented fashion. The likes of social media and other cyber capabilities will present a challenge for us as we seek to secure interests abroad.

    V/r
    Captain Gordon W. Emmanuel (USMC)

  4. Mike Kostiw says:

    Stan! Great picks. Especially Kaplans which I have already read and greatly learned from like many of his other works. Now newly retired, I have time to think! Best to you and your readers for 2014. Mike

  5. Dear Admiral, thank you for these information and recommendation. I used “The Revenge of Geography” as bibliography in my latest book – a Geostrategic Analysis of the Mediterranean and I took some ideas, in particular about the area from the Eastern Mediterranean up to Iran. Very interesting book.
    Best wishes for a healthy and happy New Year.
    Dr. I. Parisis
    MGen (r), International Relations PhD

  6. Kuda Kanhutu says:

    I am fascinated by how books that were written in “prehistoric” times can still inform the ardent student in his dealings with today’s realities:

    1. Thucydides – The History of the Peloponnesian War

    2. Christopher Marlowe – Dr Faustus

    3. Joseph Conrad – The Heart of Darkness

    4. Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince

    5. Carl von Clausewitz – On War

  7. Walt O'Brien says:

    Thanks for the list Jim. As a Floridian you may like “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise” by Michael Grunwald. Happy New Year.

  8. I also put Robert Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography at the top of my list for the sheer overview of global realities of civilizations anchored in history.

    I like The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A valuable read for all business majors who have been forced through academic rigor to stay too much in the box.

    Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order by Robert Kagan is enlightening and presents a perspective that provides a varying view of possibly a more realistic picture of how the Europeans see the US. It is also valuable to read Donald Kagan, Robert’s father, when he writes on western civilization. The Yale scholar, an expert on the classics and ancient Greece, rails about the failing of US institutions of higher education and suggests a path that reform must take. Check out his final speech as he retired from Yale: WSJ April 27-28, “Democracy May Have Had its Day.” He provides much to contemplate.

    The World American Made also by Robert Kagan (a neo-conservative historian) gives us the last 60 years of US history with a perspective that is a counter to Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World “The Rise of the Rest” (also must reads). While Kagan and Zakaria have their detractors, their perspectives are worth our thoughtful attention.

    On China by Henry Kissinger is a valuable source to understand the Chinese DNA. I admit that I may never master the names of the dynasties and the intrigues that put them in and out of power. However, Kissinger’s first-hand intimate experience with the Chinese over a 40-year career bears our careful scrutiny. At 89, Kissinger’s world-view has itself been shaped by significant history, which makes his vision relevant. He reminds the US that China has an almost 4,000-year history, and they have managed their internal and external problems without US intervention. We are the new guys on the block! To read his book with some essential background, I recommend reading about the China Dream (as a concept) in order to understand something of the current psyche of the culture.

    That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum is entertaining, while employing the usual Friedman insights: noting the dramatic shifts that have occurred in only a decade. “The internet was just beginning, and no one thought it had potential for anything. The Cloud was still in the sky. Twitter was the sound birds make, and SKYPE was a typo.” I particularly like the discussion of the weaknesses of the US education system. Friedman and Mandelbaum challenge us to recognize that to change education and to bring about the requisite reforms, without which a nation cannot be great, we must shift our discussion of education from sociological terms, to making it a discussion centered around national security.

    Currently reading Thomas Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath. Gladwell also fascinates me with his insights, and while I often marvel at the simplicity of them, they are profound. The author uses his usual scholarly research and in-depth analysis of the scene he describes. In this case, he explains how we should, of course, have known that David would beat Goliath. The odds it seems were all in David’s favor, and having little to do with direct, divine intervention.
    It would be a good idea for all of us, who believe there seems to be a vacuum in leadership in the world today, to re-read Duke’s Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader.

    Bennis says, I think on page 2, that there are three things that have the current potential to destroy civilization as we know it today. The first is nuclear war (clear to all of us at this moment), the second is a pandemic (not hard to comprehend given the population’s mobility), the third is lack of leadership (here I rest the case).

    Along with this read, and to bring the discussion of leadership more current, I recommend reading General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he discusses leadership describing leaders as those who live the “uncommon life.” WSJ November 24, 2013 at WSJ CEO Conference.

    Happy Reading.
    I also put Robert Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography at the top of my list for the sheer overview of global realities of civilizations anchored in history.

    I like The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A valuable read for all business majors who have been forced through academic rigor to stay too much in the box.

    Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order by Robert Kagan is enlightening and presents a perspective that provides a varying view of possibly a more realistic picture of how the Europeans see the US. It is also valuable to read Donald Kagan, Robert’s father, when he writes on western civilization. The Yale scholar, an expert on the classics and ancient Greece, rails about the failing of US institutions of higher education and suggests a path that reform must take. Check out his final speech as he retired from Yale: WSJ April 27-28, “Democracy May Have Had its Day.” He provides much to contemplate.

    The World American Made also by Robert Kagan (a neo-conservative historian) gives us the last 60 years of US history with a perspective that is a counter to Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World “The Rise of the Rest” (also must reads). While Kagan and Zakaria have their detractors, their perspectives are worth our thoughtful attention.

    On China by Henry Kissinger is a valuable source to understand the Chinese DNA. I admit that I may never master the names of the dynasties and the intrigues that put them in and out of power. However, Kissinger’s first-hand intimate experience with the Chinese over a 40-year career bears our careful scrutiny. At 89, Kissinger’s world-view has itself been shaped by significant history, which makes his vision relevant. He reminds the US that China has an almost 4,000-year history, and they have managed their internal and external problems without US intervention. We are the new guys on the block! To read his book with some essential background, I recommend reading about the China Dream (as a concept) in order to understand something of the current psyche of the culture.

    That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum is entertaining, while employing the usual Friedman insights: noting the dramatic shifts that have occurred in only a decade. “The internet was just beginning, and no one thought it had potential for anything. The Cloud was still in the sky. Twitter was the sound birds make, and SKYPE was a typo.” I particularly like the discussion of the weaknesses of the US education system. Friedman and Mandelbaum challenge us to recognize that to change education and to bring about the requisite reforms, without which a nation cannot be great, we must shift our discussion of education from sociological terms, to making it a discussion centered around national security.

    Currently reading Thomas Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath. Gladwell also fascinates me with his insights, and while I often marvel at the simplicity of them, they are profound. The author uses his usual scholarly research and in-depth analysis of the scene he describes. In this case, he explains how we should, of course, have known that David would beat Goliath. The odds it seems were all in David’s favor, and having little to do with direct, divine intervention.
    It would be a good idea for all of us, who believe there seems to be a vacuum in leadership in the world today, to re-read Duke’s Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader.

    Bennis says, I think on page 2, that there are three things that have the current potential to destroy civilization as we know it today. The first is nuclear war (clear to all of us at this moment), the second is a pandemic (not hard to comprehend given the population’s mobility), the third is lack of leadership (here I rest the case).

    Along with this read, and to bring the discussion of leadership more current, I recommend reading General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he discusses leadership describing leaders as those who live the “uncommon life.” WSJ November 24, 2013 at WSJ CEO Conference.

    Happy Reading.