What Does a Soldier Need to Read?

Elizabeth D. Samet

I fell in love with the BBC Radio 4 program “Desert Island Discs” years ago while living in Scotland, a place that felt a little like a desert island to me, on my own in an unfamiliar place really for the first time. The premise of the show, which first aired in 1942, is that a celebrity guest selects eight records, together with a book and a luxury item, that he or she would most wish to have if marooned on a desert island. (Shakespeare’s complete works and the Bible are always thrown into the bargain.) There’s little by way of apology, much by way of surprise: General Sir Charles Guthrie, then-Chief of the British Defence Staff, selected Liza Minnelli’s “Cabaret” and a surfboard, while Blondie’s Debbie Harry opted for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Few of us have been castaways, but we’ve all spun variations on the exercise of figuring out whatever is essential to the life of our minds. On graduating from West Point or sometimes just before they deploy, former students frequently ask me if I have on hand, or could create, a reading list—indispensable books they can buy or, increasingly, download to their e-readers. Whitney, now a lieutenant home from her first tour in Afghanistan, dubbed it the “House-on-Fire List.” If I smelled smoke, she demanded, which books would I grab first? I like the sense of urgency.

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