I started 2018 homeless. I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it is. I had shelter—cycling between futons, backseats, guest beds, and floors—thanks to the kindness of friends and family. I also had work, eking by without health insurance as a college adjunct, getting paid $1,800 per course for the entire semester. Things are better now. I’m ending the year with my own space, less scarcity, and more books read. Over the last 12 months, I struggled to parse my obligations to writing when it so often felt ill-suited to help myself or anyone else. In the times when I’m stunned by financial challenges or tragedies both foreign and domestic, there is a moment of doubt; a fear that, at this point in my life, at this moment in our collective history, participating in literary discourse is pointless, even irresponsible.
I wrestle with the practicality of addressing disparities with stories. In 2018, I had reason to ask, What does art, what does writing, do? And what does one owe their craft? And how might pursuing a life of art fulfill, or complicate, what one owes others?
These questions led me through some of my favorite books this year. Accepting that art does not exist outside of context, independent of rhetorical situations, the narratives that affected me the most this year are the ones I could most easily tie to the framework of my own experience. The 12 books below helped me read myself in the midst of confusion. These texts provided answers to some of my doubt; they helped me. I selected quotes emblematic of each narrative and its role in my life this year. When I collected these passages together, I noticed a unifying theme joining them in conversation with one another. I hope to contribute to that conversation. In writing, I hope my voice carries to someone who might need it.
We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884 – 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Bloomsbury)
“…And tell us your version / of everything when it isn’t even about you.”
The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir by Anand Prahlad (University of Alaska Press)
“People don’t know it, but they are forests and cities of sounds. Of colors and scents. And each forest and each city has its own patterns. […] These patterns are my time, like your time is clocks, hours, and minutes. Seconds and years, and decades and months. My time is the pattern the patterns make.”
Pacha by Nick Hilbourn (Kattywompus Press)
“Like most people,
I’ve fallen down before a mirror
to worship the absence of things, to pray
to the images in my mind. Meaning, being the fragile compass,
I imagine lives somewhere else, in a well that seduces
with the promise of a rope and provides just enough water to survive.”
(from “The Holy Maggots”)
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (New Directions)
“And a world is not art.”
Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbe (New York Review Comics)
“At the moment I am a shadow. I come in the name of pain, to sharpen my song, the tongue that bleeds.”
“The West does not want to accept its responsibility. There are going to be millions of Africans fleeing war. The population is growing, it’s going to double, there will be more famine, more wars, and more refugees. This is not just about Syria. Are Western leaders hoping that the problem will just resolve itself?”
The Linden Tree by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
“…turn back to the past. Not as nostalgia or history, but in a constructive, optimistic, spirit.”
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (Scribner)
“It occurred to me that I was borrowing from these systems: Religion, Philosophy, Music, Science, and Painting, and building 1 of my own composed of their elements. […] I had patched something together out of my procedure and the way I taught myself became my style, my art, my process.”
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin)
“I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.”
Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcala (Ugly Duckling Press)
“One day I suggested to my desk mate that we change the world. ‘How?’ he asked. By talking, I told him. ‘But how can a conversation change the world?’” (from “The Conversationalists”)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)
“It’s just, I’m stuck. I can see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.”
Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire, translated by Theo Cuffe (Penguin)
“‘All this is indispensable’ […] While he was reasoning thus, the sky darkened, the winds blew from the four corners of the earth, and their ship was assailed by the most terrible storm…”
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“But let us cultivate our garden.” —Candide by Voltaire (1759), translated by Theo Cuffe (2009)
The first real garden I grew on my own was in 1996, when I was in my mid-20s. I had graduated as an engineer and started working at a pneumatics manufacturer in the British Midlands. My one-bedroom rental was in an old semi-detached two-story house where the local council authorities had converted each floor into a separate flat and sold off to private owners. Each flat had a small, equally sectioned area of the backyard. From my upstairs kitchen and bathroom windows, I could see the entire backyard with its two neatly fenced-off plots.
I would have probably left my patch of fenced-off grass alone, but the married couple I was renting from had made its maintenance one of the lease conditions. They also had family living down that same street to keep an eye on things.
On weekends and late summer evenings, I had noted neighbors up and down my street tending to their own gardens, both front and back, enjoying the brief nice weather as much as possible. Trying not to stare as I searched unsuccessfully for brown faces like mine, I would scurry past on red-gold evenings with my grocery-filled backpack. Often, they would be conversing across hedges and fences about plants or pests. A wisp of a breeze would tug slightly at their old gardening clothes and send snatches of their chatter—filled with exotic-sounding technical jargon—my way. On the odd occasion when one of them stopped to smile and wave, it felt as if I had interrupted something very private.
Gardening had never been of interest to a bookish, indoor sort like me. Growing up in Mumbai, there had never been anything to tend for besides the few potted plants on apartment balconies. But I was in a new part of England after several years of a mostly cloistered university life, so I knew nobody. My long workdays at the new job were difficult, and on weekends, I collapsed into comas of reading and television watching. This was the time before home computers or mobile phones were ubiquitous in all homes. And British Telecom reigned supreme with their absurd landline rates, both domestic and international, so that long chats with friends or family were out of the question. Still, it wasn’t so much a sense of loneliness as a sense of a growing desert inside. Much like the garden plot lying useless, I felt vast spaces within me going fallow too.
The “garden” is a recurring motif in Voltaire’s novella Candide. It shows up throughout the story in various settings and symbolic themes, which is why there are still several differing interpretations of this particular Voltairean philosophy. The story is about a naive young man who travels the world, gets into all kinds of awful difficulties (e.g. rape, disemboweling), tries to dust off every horror with the optimistic maxim from his mentor, Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and finally concludes that we can only (and we must) “cultivate our own garden.”
The garden at the very end of the story, where this line also occurs, provides the most commonly accepted interpretation. Candide and all the main characters set to work together on a bit of land, each taking responsibility for a specific task. The catalyst is another character, a Turk, whom they meet just before. This Turk tells them about his own garden and how he tends to it with his four children, doing simple work and not minding external affairs. Their main objective, he says, is to keep free of the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.
Scholars continue to debate what Voltaire was saying with this ending. Was he advocating a passive retreat and isolation from society or an active contribution to it? Was he suggesting we lose all hope by giving up on the idea that “everything happens for the best”?
When Voltaire completed and published Candide, he was living in exile on his estate in Ferney, a town on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. Within this country retreat, he designed and cultivated an actual garden where he could, as he had written in another book, The Age of Louis XIV, enjoy “affable manners, simple living, and the culture of the mind.” Of course, this was also the time when he took on religious fanaticism and torture as his main causes, fighting for those who had been convicted—wrongly as he saw it—in the name of religion. In his brilliant 2005 essay on Voltaire’s garden, Adam Gopnik writes:
It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally.
Gopnik goes on to confirm that, with Candide, Voltaire was really writing against optimal thinking of the kind that sees everything tending toward the best in the end. And, importantly, Voltaire was against the “flight from failed optimism into faith.” Gopnik also clarified the key phrase:
It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open,“simplicity” itself. … By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “we must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. … Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.
Gopnik gave his interpretation and analysis in a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Trump era. Today, we have few, if any, physical or psychical gates or boundaries from the world at large. It comes at us from all sides like, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote once, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” (possibly, had she been writing that today, she would have added strong qualifiers for the speed at which this happens). So the “windows wide and doors open” aspect of Voltaire’s garden is no longer a promise of that metaphorical domestic bliss because these windows and doors have been blown off entirely. The careful cultivation of this personal garden to allow a life of deep, emotionally rich meaning is a much harder prospect for any would-be, modern-day Voltaire.
And yet it was tempting for me to try just that sort of Voltairean endeavor with my little English garden back in 1996. I asked a couple of coworkers for advice on how to manage this 5-foot-by-3-foot bit of earth I was now responsible for. They made it sound simple enough: Buy seed packets at the local B&Q DIY store, aerate the soil (an elderly co-worker came by one evening to show me how to make both vertical and horizontal furrows and even loaned me his precious rake), place seeds in well-spaced rows at regular intervals and depths, cover up with fertilized topsoil, water as needed, and remove weeds when they appear.
In early spring, I planted vegetables—runner beans along a handmade wire trellis, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), cucumber, tomato, carrot, lettuce—and looked forward to sustaining myself on freshly tossed salads throughout the summer. Along one long fence edge, I scattered flower seeds three layers deep for irises, crocuses, lavender, chrysanthemums, sweet pea, daffodils, asters, zinnias, delphiniums, violets, dahlias, daisies, carnations, geraniums, nasturtiums, gladioli, larkspur, and more.
At first, I was too self-conscious, worried that everyone would see how I knew nothing. The tall widow in the flat below me would sit on her kitchen doorstep after supper, her short blue-rinsed hair in tight curlers. She would watch me planting, weeding, and watering through the smoke rings of her after-supper cigarette. We rarely spoke and, after that one cigarette, she would retreat indoors and lock her several door latches with loud, definitive clicks and clacks.
Eventually, I grew to love that solitude, silence, and space and even looked forward to it as my daily highlight. That I was taking care of things and making them grow felt more than productive—it felt both purposeful and grown up. And as my own gardening vocabulary grew from the books the local garden center had advised me to buy, I would whisper some of those new words while bending over the saplings—as if sprinkling them with sacred mantras to help them thrive.
Diane Ackerman wrote an entire book about her garden, Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden. Taking us through how her upstate New York garden fares through the four seasons, Ackerman muses philosophically and lyrically on many aspects of life, growth, and death. Her opening is beautiful:
I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires. … By definition, the garden’s errands can never be finished and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. … Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame for their vision of life. … Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are eternal optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder, a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.
In her journals, May Sarton praised the slowness and patience that gardening requires: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” She also wrote of how it is a metaphor for life: “The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.” And the “good” kind of death: “In the garden the door is always open into the “holy”—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.”
Virginia Woolf used gardens in fiction (the most well-known example: “Kew Gardens”) as metaphors for different aspects of life, relationships, and more. She even wrote in a little separate shed-like room in her garden at Monk’s House, her weekend home in Sussex. Though her husband, Leonard Woolf, did much of the cultivating and tending, there’s a lovely throwaway sentence in her diaries that summarizes the joys she got from gardens: “Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.”
Happiness also came through in my garden. By late spring and early summer, the weekend and late-evening hours spent taking care of all that life teeming its way through the rich loam paid off more than I had imagined. On the vegetable side, the dense, lush crop was too much for one person, and I gave most of it away to neighbors and coworkers to avoid spoilage. On the flower side, the countless upstanding blooms were all mixed into a riotously colored palette, wafting ripe and heady scents, and sheltering an entire ecosystem of small insects.
Yes, a lot of this had to do with that perfect confluence of natural elements—weather, water, soil, seed, ecology—and helpful and neighborly friends. But, as it had been for Ackerman and Sarton and Woolf, my garden had also been a way to make some order from chaos, find some grace through growth and change, and create an enthusiasm of my own.
In the next two decades, I went on to buy (and sell) homes of my own as I moved across several different states in the U.S. Each house had a decent-sized backyard where I hoped to replicate that first gardening success. But the careful, patient cultivation of those spaces had to be outsourced while I invested almost all my time and energy in the cultivation of my professional career. And while that career did bloom and grow, it never had quite the same effortless magic and satisfaction as that physical garden.
In my 40th year, I came across Andy Weir’s online-published novel, The Martian.
Mark Watney is a NASA astronaut who gets left on Mars and is presumed dead. After his initial shock and panic, Watney decides to “science the shit out of” the disaster of being left alone on an uninhabitable terrain with practically no life resources. The most important thing he has to do is figure out how to sustain himself while waiting to make contact with NASA so they know he’s still alive and can rescue him. As a botanist, he cultivates a potato garden with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. He goes to great lengths and works diligently, all the while knowing that it may never matter in the end if he can’t get back to earth. Still, at one point, he has 400 healthy potato plants that buy him a whole lot more waiting time.
Now, while Watney’s fictional solution to potato gardening on Mars is complex, it isn’t entirely technically sound—from the use of human feces (without composting for months) as fertilizer to turning the rocket’s hydrazine fuel into water to all the other unpredictable accidents along the way. Still, let’s move past all that to the key message his garden cultivation gives us—or what it gave me at a major turning point in my career and life.
I had finally gotten around to admitting to myself, after decades, that I had hit stony ground and needed to transplant myself into new soil. I knew what kind of garden, metaphorically speaking, I wanted to cultivate. I had, in fact, been attempting to work at it all my life with scraps of free time here and there and a bit of nourishment from a writing workshop now and then. But the writing work often ran to weed quickly and the long fallow periods in between each new sprouting certainly did not help.
Like Candide and his cohorts, I decided to focus my most essential occupation on the local/personal and immediate. I told myself that, even if it involved starting with something as boring as potatoes in a difficult Mars-like environment, as Watney had done, then I would do that.
I have been cultivating my “literary” garden for six years now. There have been seeds that did not germinate and crops both good and bad. The lessons of my first garden are with me always: tend constantly; accept that everything has its season; ensure good fences; leave no stones unturned; know that weeds can, sometimes, be wildflowers too; and appreciate that the occasional strong breezes create strong trees.
The last bit of conversation in Candide is between Candide and his mentor, Pangloss. Pangloss reminds his mentee that he would not be sitting in that garden and enjoying its fruits if he had not gone through his many troubles before. As much as Voltaire intended Pangloss to be a satirical, laughable caricature of old-fashioned optimism, this is ancient, true wisdom. All of us finally arrive at the gardens we are meant to cultivate after a “concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds.”
In literary works around the world, gardens have been portrayed as places of trysts, romance, sex, contemplation, escape, solace, possibilities, and more. They evoke a wide range of metaphoric images, represent our many connections with nature, and bring a richer language into play. Voltaire’s garden, I’ve always believed, is not the typical Edenic kind requiring expulsion at some stage. Instead, it wholeheartedly advocates a complete focus on its cultivation and a rightful enjoyment of its pleasures.
I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A new edition of Voltaire’s Candide with a cover by Chris Ware came out a few months ago. At the time, it was announced that there would other books in this series with covers by other famous artists, and I’ve been waiting to see them ever since. The other other day Penguin’s Summer 2006 catalog arrived, and I was excited to see that the covers are in there. I was going to wait until the pictures were up online somewhere before posting them, but it was taking too long, so I scanned them. Candide is already out, the rest are out on March 28:Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Cover by Anders NilsenThe New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, Cover by Art Spiegelman Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Cover by Roz ChastThe Portable Dorothy Parker, Cover by Seth The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Cover by Charles BurnsCandide by Voltaire, Cover by Chris WareSee the full-size pictures hereUpdate: See Part Two