Magazine article The New Yorker

Canon Fodder

Magazine article The New Yorker

Canon Fodder

Article excerpt

When allegations surfaced that details in Greg Mortenson's memoir "Three Cups of Tea" had been fabricated, some reports noted that the book, a best-seller about doing good works in Central Asia, is "required reading" for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. These reports were referring to the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center's Pre-Deployment Afghanistan Reading List, which (in addition to cultural field guides and counter-insurgency manuals) recommends novels such as Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" and George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman."

Reading has been a part of military life since Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. When the United States Military Academy was founded, in 1802, John Adams advocated an ambitious reading program for officers. "I wished to turn the Minds of such as were capable of it to that great Source of Information," he wrote. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime printed more than a hundred and twenty million paperbacks for distribution to American soldiers. Touted as "weapons in the war of ideas," these Armed Services Editions ranged from "Tristram Shandy" and "Candide" to "My Antonia."

Harold Bloom, in "The Western Canon," described the culture's seminal books as possessing "strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange." Today's military reading lists have a more pragmatic bent. Each major branch of the U.S. military has its own lists, usually targeted to specific ranks; the Marines alone maintain dozens of different reading lists, and the Army has at least six, overseen by such entities as the Chief of Staff, the War College Library, and the Center for Army Leadership. "Three Cups of Tea" appears on the Joint Forces Staff College Commandant's Professional Reading List and on the list of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Professional Reading Program.

In terms of "strangeness," the Navy Professional Reading Program recommends, along with Melville's "Billy Budd," "Starship Troopers," the 1959 science-fiction novel about a war between mankind and an arachnoid species known as the Bugs. The self-help genre is well represented, too. Soldiers are encouraged to peruse "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People. …

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