The best books to know the sea

James G. Stavridis Author Of The Sailor's Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea
By James G. Stavridis

Who am I?

I'm a retired 4-star Admiral who spent over forty years at sea, rising from Midshipman at the Naval Academy to Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. I studied literature and published eleven books, many dealing with the oceans. My PhD from Tufts University, where I served as Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, centered on the Law of the Sea Treaty. My father was a seagoing US Marine, my wife grew up in the Navy with a father who was a Navy pilot, and my daughter was a Navy nurse. Finally, my basset hound is named Penelope, after the wife of Ulysses who waited for her husband to return from ten years at sea.


I wrote...

The Sailor's Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea

By James G. Stavridis,

Book cover of The Sailor's Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea

What is my book about?

The oceans are vast, covering over 70% of the world but few of us know them well.  To create The Sailor’s Bookshelf, I selected the fifty books that formed the heart of my own voyage from Midshipman at Annapolis to 4-star Admiral, and provided a concise summary of each them, as well as weaving in my own experiences at sea. The books cover everything from the history of navigation to the adventures of the bravest seagoing explorers to the expansive fictional literature of the sea.  Let’s get underway!

The books I picked & why

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Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Island I Have Not Visited and Never Will

By Judith Schalansky,

Book cover of Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Island I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Why this book?

This fascinating little gem of a book is concerned with tiny, largely unknown islands scattered around the world. Schalansky essentially selected them largely for how far they are from big, continental lands. Even after spending a significant portion of my life at sea, I can only claim to have visited or even sailed within sight of about a dozen of them. Most of these small atolls are far from their mother countries. But each of these isolated islands has a story that is inextricably tied to the sea.


Sea Power: A Naval History

By E.B. Potter,

Book cover of Sea Power: A Naval History

Why this book?

When I was a first-year student at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1972, every “plebe,” as we were called, was required to take a full-year course called simply Sea Power. It is in a sense four books in one: a history of the United States Navy and of American naval power; a history of the world’s navies; a study of the evolution of naval warfare; and a study of the part that sea power has played in the exercise of national power. It is also full of dozens of maps, charts, and, above all, detailed tactical depictions of individual battles, the latter ranging from the Bay of Salamis, where the Greeks and Persians fought 2,500 years ago, through Trafalgar at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, to the pivotal battles of Midway and Leyte Gulf in World War II.


Sailing Alone Around the World

By Joshua Slocum,

Book cover of Sailing Alone Around the World

Why this book?

One of the great pure sailors of all time was Joshua Slocum. Born in 1844 in eastern Canada he remains one of the most renowned sailors of all time—deservedly, because he completed the first documented circumnavigation of the world alone in a sailboat. A severe-looking man in maturity with a completely bald head and a very full goatee. His four children were born at sea on his ships. And his adventures literally around the world are too numerous to enumerate here. Suffice to say, this was a man “rocked in the cradle of the deep,” with saltwater in his veins.

Toward the turn of the century, in his early fifties, he decided to build a small sailing vessel and sail alone around the world. It was the seminal moment in his life, and he’d describe it beautifully in this marvelous tale. Slocum faced all the perils one would expect: terrible weather, near collisions, piracy, sheer loneliness, mediocre food, near shipwreck, and plenty more. Joshua Slocum quite modestly makes Spray the real hero of the book, and by the end, the reader loves that little boat too, along with learning a great deal about life at sea.


Moby-Dick

By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

In my home are five copies of Moby-Dick, or The Whale, which was published in 1851 to so-so reviews. Yet I consider it the greatest novel of the sea ever written, and I have returned to read it again and again over the years. The central storyline of Moby-Dick is loosely based on the destruction of a whaling ship, Essex, in 1822. The plot centers on Captain Ahab’s quest to harpoon the “white whale” of the title, and the prose soars to beautiful rhetorical heights that echo Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Once a reader has climbed the mountain of Moby-Dick, it is a book that stays with you forever, especially in terms of understanding the oceans. Like the sea itself, this epic novel will get into the heart of a reader who is open to its unique structure and tone.


The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

By Herman Wouk,

Book cover of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Why this book?

A novel about a rusty old destroyer minesweeper, a supremely difficult captain, a mixed bag officers in a dysfunctional wardroom, a horrific typhoon, and a nail-biting court-martial. The seagoing and combat portions of the novel are very realistic, reflecting Wouk’s time in uniform on a similar class of ship in the Pacific during WWII. In my hand as I write this is a battered 1951 first edition of the novel, with a slightly tattered cover, which I treasure above almost any book in the five thousand volumes in my personal library. Over the years of my career, I’ve returned again and again to The Caine Mutiny, and the fundamental lesson of this sea novel is what both leaders and followers owe each other, especially in the demanding crucible of the sea.


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