Summer Reading

It's not often that I read a headline that almost causes me to spill my morning coffee and then weep, but I confess I had that reaction to an article making the papers this week. The article said 1 out of 4 adults read no books in the past year. I find that as astonishing as if I had read that 1 out of 4 adults hates dogs. (Who doesn't like dogs?)


I really wonder what those 25% of adults do with their free time, because almost every minute of mine (not spent surfing) is spent reading. As long as I can remember, I have had a book addiction severe enough that I've thought about joining a 12-step program for Bookaholics: People Who Read Too Much. I started early and have never really slowed down. (I learned to print my name at age 4 only so I could get my very own library card.)


As an adult, I have books stacked two and three deep in all my bookshelves. I have them on top of the radiators (which I turn off - I'd rather shiver in winter than ruin a book). They are stacked under tables (with long tablecloths to hide the stacks) and on and under my nightstand. Under my coffee table and under my sofa, too. My mother expects to read that my apartment in San Francisco has sunk into San Francisco Bay from the weight of all those books. It's not quite as bad in Idaho, because a) I have more room! And b) I don't buy books so much anymore, but I devour whatever the Ketchum Community Library has - and they are really well-stocked.


It's not that I think I am better or smarter than those 1 out of 4 adults. (My dog differs but he is allowed his prejudices, which I happen to know can be bought for a couple of Greenies.) But reading has opened my eyes to worlds, histories, thoughts and dreams I never would have experienced otherwise. I can't imagine a life without books. I don't even go out of the house without reading material, because waiting in line (or at an airport or at a cafe for a friend) is an opportunity to read just a few more pages.


I am also a "carrier." When I find a book I really like, I buy copies for friends and nudge them into reading them. (Only I keep forgetting what I have already bought my nephew, which is how he ended up with two copies of Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves and 2 copies of Stories of Hawai'i by Jack London. Sorry, Piers!) My buddy Elad and I have traded books and writers back and forth for a couple of years now and have been known to read the same book at about the same time to have someone to enthuse with (or alternatively, pick a book apart).


I simply don't understand people who don't read books.


Love of reading is not a function of educational level, either. I had a friend once who, despite two degrees (2 - count 'em - 2) from Stanford, freely admitted she had read no books since graduation. (Yeesh.)  She marveled at the number of books in my apartment and wanted to know if I actually read them. It was all I could do not to say, "No, <name omitted>, they are wall insulation. Of course I read them!" No matter how impressive your educational credentials, a university education is just the beginning of knowledge. You learn, or should learn, to teach yourself. Books are the key. Reading also helps give you a broader perspective on the world than you might otherwise have. Let's face it; technology (for example) is not the be-all and end-all we sometimes think it is. (A shock, I know, to some in Silicon Valley who think history began with the transistor.)


I guess there is a security aspect to all this, somewhere, somehow. For a start, I do read a lot of military history and that helps me look at IT security from the posture of a warrior. I haven't personally worn a "war suit" for years or done field exercises/war games in years, but I think that reading military history helps give me a different slant on computer security. It also helps me connect with customers (like the Defense Department) because I can speak their language. I think about computer networks like battlefields and I look at battles of the past to think about IT defense.


Also, so much of history is military history. It grieves me to no end that all kids seem to learn about WWII anymore is synopsized in the following: "We interned the Japanese: That Was Bad. Women (like Rosie the Riveter) entered the workforce: That Was Good."Nothing about Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Stalingrad, Kursk. Why we fought, who fought, how the world changed and how the world was - for better or worse - shaped by war. I don't think we can hope to understand the present or shape the future if we do not understand the past. We also need to try to learn from the lessons of the past:  it history does not repeat itself, as the dictum goes, it sure does rhyme.


(Another "security" aspect to my reading: I would not have known, without reading Miracle at Midway by Gordon Prange, that the victory at Midway was made possible in no small part because the US had broken Japan's JN25 naval cipher. Code breaking was critical in other aspects of the war, too, as anyone who has read about Enigma knows. The lesson here is that you should never assume your codes are unbreakable unless you are using one-time pad ciphers and not reusing the pads.)


So, I offer below (because it is, technically still summer, and because kids aren't the only ones who need reading lists), a smattering of books in no particular order I'd recommend for anybody's reading list.


Oracle 10g Performance Tuning Tips and Techniques by Rich Niemic


Well, it's not fiction, and it's not history, and normally, I would not put a tech book on my reading list. All that said, it's actually easy to recommend this book because I am a) not a performance tuning person and b) not someone who was ever even remotely interested in performance tuning. I am, however, a charter member of the Rich Niemic Fan Club (Rich is the former president of the Oracle User Group and a big Oracle security friend). Rich asked me to provide a quote for his book and, in reading the sections he sent me (I wanted to make sure the book was great before I gushed over it publicly), I became really interested in performance tuning. Who knew? This book is very readable, it's really interesting, and I can guarantee you that your Grandma from Des Moines will be a performance tuning fool after reading this book. Life's too short to buy some dull Oracle-related tome that you will never read and that won't help you. (Especially when you can buy this one that's fun to read and will most definitely help make your database crank!)


Sea of Thunder by Evan Thomas
Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornfischer.


Many of us spend oodles of money to go to the movies to see battles of derring do between good guys and bad guys, or defenders of the universe vs. evil aliens. Save the $10 ($15 with popcorn) and buy one or both of these books to read about real heroism against the odds. Both books describe the Battle off Samar in the Philippines in 1944, a story that should be told and retold as long as acts of heroism are recounted through generations. This is the story of the men of Taffy3 (destroyers, general purpose or "Jeep" carriers and destroyer escorts) against the Japanese armada, including the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built. Think about a bunch of determined gnats going up against an angry tiger - and winning!


I confess to having more than a passing interest in this story: Mick Carney, ADM Bull Halsey's chief of staff (and family friend) is liberally quoted in Sea of Thunder and another family friend is quoted in Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. I have read both books, more than once, and as I close the back cover, I always say, "Where do we get such men?" There is also (gotta work that security angle in here) a retelling of the incredible but true story of an well-known encryption blunder: the infamous message from ADM Chester Nimitz to ADM Bull Halsey: "Where is task force 34 the world wonders?"  (The last three words were message padding, a slight rip-off of the Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson and not intended to be part of the message; Halsey read it, thought Nimitz was ridiculing him, and had a fit. He then turned his carriers around from pursuing the Japanese and headed back to where Taffy3 was in the thick of battle. Some LTJG was cashiered for that mistake, one suspects.)


Power, Faith and Fantasy: A History of America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren


The Middle East is much in the news these days, and it is interesting to note how long America has been involved in the Middle East: since the origins of the country. There are a lot of amazing factoids in here, such as: one of the reasons the United States has a strong constitution (supplanting the Articles of Confederation) is because of the Barbary pirates (and that at one point, the United States was giving up 25% of our GDP in tribute  - better known as "blackmail" - to the Barbary pirates). The states realized that individually, they could not raise a strong navy, but a strong centralized government could, and voila - we have a strong central government and the beginning of US naval power. (Ever wonder about that line in the Marine Corps Hymn: " the shores of Tripoli?" That came from the war against the Barbary pirates.)  A really interesting read and a view of history you won't readily find anywhere else.


A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin


If you want to know a lot of why the Middle East is the way it is, you need to understand how the borders got drawn and by whom. For that, you need to at least go back as far as the first World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. This book tells you almost more than you want to know about the subject, but it is thorough and will explain a lot that you can't easily understand without reading history. I confess to having had an argument over the Middle East once (well, more than once - I'm obviously opinionated on a number of topics) and I threw out a lot of points related to "how the borders got drawn and who did all that, anyway?" The gentleman I was arguing with asked - in amazement - how I came by all that information, to which I responded (slightly censored version), "I read history." I should have said that I read this book. It's a worthy (and non-polemical) read, well researched and presented.


A Better War by Lewis Sorley.


For those of us of a certain age (if you lived through the late 1960s), reading about or discussing Viet Nam is a painful exercise. The author is a West Point graduate and a former intelligence professional and, well, you will have to read the book to have your myths shattered. It should be required reading for anybody before even thinking about discussing Viet Nam. The book is balanced, thoughtful, well researched, but an eye opener.


Pied Piper, Trustee from the Toolroom, Requiem for A Wren, In the Wet, aw heck, how about anything by Nevil Shute


I had the unfortunate experience recently of reading a really dreary modern piece of for my book group about loss (related to September 11), and I could not but contrast the heavy handed plot, the wandering, aimless prose and the thoroughly unsympathetic characters in that book with Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute (also published under the title The Breaking Wave), that I had just read. What comes through in his work (besides his keen interest in engineering, aviation, archeology and other topics) is the fundamental decency of his characters, many of whom are confronted with hard choices and with unspeakable losses, but who soldier on, anyway. I am pleased to say that the Ketchum Community Library has 13 works by Shute and I intend to read them all. (Several of his books have been made into movies, including No Highway (the movie version is No Highway in the Sky), Pied Piper and On The Beach.)


From a security aspect, No Highway talks about an engineer who is convinced that a plane is about to have a catastrophic failure. It also concerns the lengths he goes to to ground the plane before there is an accident. It is a lesson in integrity, risk, and the moral issues around how far one can go or should go to ensure safety.


The Poems of A.E. Housman


I have a Housman fetish. I once spent two years looking for his books in print - anywhere. It took me that long to find a (used) copy of his complete poems. Later that same year, I went to Blackwell's in Oxford, England (the Mecca for bibliophiles, or one of them) and they had three shelves of works by and about Housman. Sigh. I think the folks at Blackwell's are still washing the saliva off the floor from the amount of drooling I did there. There is no finer poet or one more capable of eliciting wistfulness from the reader. "To an athlete dying young" is a particular favorite (and should be familiar to you if you saw Out of Africa).


Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels)


Fforde is just as witty and silly (good silly) in person as his books are; I heard him speak recently about his latest book, First Among Sequels. His books are really hard to explain; they simply defy genre. I liked the review that said they are a combination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, and Monty Python. The books contain absolutely outrageous puns and amazing literary references (Jane Eyre is a character; so are Hamlet, Miss Havisham and Mrs.Tiggy-Winkle). Life is serious enough; sometimes you need to read something very smart but amazingly silly.


The Code Book by Simon Singh


Closing out with a security book of sorts. I confess to not being a technical security kahuna in a lot of ways, particularly in the area of cryptography (which is, let's face it, one of the sexier parts of security). The Code Book really explains cryptography, and the history of it, in a readable, interesting way. You can sit through a lot of truly dull lectures and presentations, or you can grab this book and happily read your way to being a whole lot smarter about crypto (and a lot more appreciative of code breakers and makers throughout history).


A few closing thoughts. Lest anyone think I am a stuffed shirt who only reads Meaningful Tomes, I freely confess that I have read more than my share of murder mysteries, suspense books, adventure tales, science fiction, children's books and things that don't always qualify as literature but are great reads. Some days, after a hard week at work, you want "mind candy" and not War and Peace (with apologies to Count Leo Tolstoy).  It is just not that hard to be one of the 75% of adults who read at least one book a year, so go for it.


Almost all of these books can be ordered from Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble and so on and so forth. Or, you can patronize your local independent bookseller (the ones who remember what you like). Or you can support your local library and borrow the book. (Libraries like donations, too.) Go get lost in a good book.


For more information:


1 in 4 adults read no books last year:


Rich Niemic's book:


About Nevil Shute:


Jasper Fforde's web site:


About the Battle off Samar:


The Code Book:


Selected poems of A.E. Housman online at:


A review of A Better War:


More on "the world wonders" padding screwup:


A really great biography of Halsey by the late E.B. Potter (former professor emeritus at the US Naval Academy):


Who also wrote a great book on Nimitz:



An awesome, in-depth book on the battle of Midway that a friend recommended and I thoroughly enjoyed: Lots and lots of grotty technical details that really show you, hour by hour and sometimes minute by minute, what happened and why. On the subject of best books. I have studied the ancient Chinese Classic of Changes (I Ching) most of my life, and people sometimes ask me what is the best English edition. It is this one, hands down: It's out of print. Better get it before it becomes rare/expensive. If you really want to read the book in depth, though, it's better to learn Classical Chinese. It's less difficult than it sounds. Well, no, actually it's just as difficult as it sounds and the language has been kicking my butt for seven years. But it's worth the effort.

Posted by Chris Gait on September 05, 2007 at 06:52 AM PDT #

Many thanks, Mary Ann, for the kind words about my book.

Posted by James Hornfischer on October 26, 2007 at 02:01 AM PDT #

nice read. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you hear that some Iranian hacker had busted twitter yesterday.

Posted by Ruth on December 17, 2009 at 06:12 PM PST #

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