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Posted on Mar 8, 2022 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

In The Sailor’s Bookshelf, James Stavridis Tackles a Deep Subject – The Sea. Book Review.

In The Sailor’s Bookshelf, James Stavridis Tackles a Deep Subject – The Sea. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea. Admiral James Stavridis.  Publisher: Naval Institute Press.  Price $ 24.95

I’ve read a fair number of books the past few years. It’s made me realize that there are authors, there are good authors and then there are authors that have you devouring their book from cover to cover. Admiral James Stavridis book, The Sailor’s Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea is squarely in this last category. Now this might be the strangest book review I’ve yet written, because it’s basically a book review about a book composed of… book reviews.

Still with me? Good!


If you are going to read one book this year, you would do well to read The Sailor’s Bookshelf. Similar in structure to Stavridis’s earlier book The Leader’s Bookshelf, The Sailor’s Bookshelf is a list of, as the subtitle states ‘…Fifty Books to Know the Sea….’. But this book is much more than just a list. Admiral Stavridis clearly conveys his appreciation of both the sea and the written word, combining them into a format that both educates the reader while guiding them towards even more information.  The list spans subjects and genre encompassing fiction, history, law, environmentalism and more!

I often refer to a cruise ship vacation as a ‘sampler’. You don’t stay in one place very long and you’ll often just see enough to pique your interest. The Sailor’s Bookshelf strikes me as a literary rendition of the cruising vacation. You’ll read a little bit about a variety of topics and Stavridis is a master at setting the hook of curiosity, motivating you to seek out and read many of these books.

On a practical level, The Sailor’s Bookshelf is a case study in how to develop a distinct author’s voice while at the same time writing an engaging book review. Admiral Stavridis excels in his use of an active, engaging voice that conveys his wonder and excitement of the sea. It’s approach that takes his passion for the sea and shares why he finds each of these books so compelling. It’s impressive that he does so in a way that does not speak down to the reader, but rather, pulls them into the current of his fascination that then carries the reader along with him.

 By way of example, Stavridis list includes Rachel L Carson’s The Sea Around Us. His opening paragraph captures the tone and tenor he brings to the other 49 books on the list.

Rachel Carson was a brilliant writer and a fine scientist. She bridged those two worlds perfectly, writing a series of best-selling and highly regarded books about nature, including Silent Spring, which is widely regarded as a classic of environmental science its time.

But Stavridis does not just tackle historical and scientific works. The list includes entries of fiction that have the sea as a central character. While it would be no surprise to find works such as Moby Dick or Master and Commander on this list, it was Stavridis’ review of a classic novel by Nicolas Monserrat that sold me on the value of The Sailor’s Bookshelf.

When I first set out to revise Command at Sea, I was struggling to shape a few words that could summarize what a sailor wants and expects from his or her commanding officer. I looked through the Navy Regulations, of course, and many professional manuals. Finding nothing quite right, I began to reread many sea novels that place command at the center of a powerful narrative – writers like Patrick O’Brian, Herman Wouk, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, C.S. Forester came and went. But it was in The Cruel Sea that I found just the right evocation of that mix of reliability, resilience and selflessness that for me personifies the servant captain at sea.

If I had not previously read The Cruel Sea, that quote would have me searching for a copy to add to the bookshelf.

Of course, despite our desires, most of us don’t have unlimited space on our bookshelves. If you are constrained for space, The Sailor’s Bookshelf is a great space-saver, giving you an overview of those fifty titles packed into the 232 pages between its covers. The diverse range of topics covered in The Sailor’s Bookshelf is a key feature in its utility. If you have any interest in the sea, the books on this list are bound to include several you will want to chase down. As such, it’s the perfect gift for that nautically minded person. Don’t just give them another book about submarines, give them a book that will make them think about the sea in all its wonder.