Best Defense

Organizing your bookshelves: A memoir

War on the Rocks asked Adm. James Stavridis about how he organizes his books.


War on the Rocks asked Adm. James Stavridis about how he organizes his books. That’s an insider’s question that one booklover might ask another. His answer? Well, he doesn’t do it by color.

It reminded me of how, when I lived just outside Washington, D.C., my wife and I had a home office built for me, with lovely floor to ceiling bookshelves. I was so pleased because, for the first time in my adult life, I could have all my books in the same place. But it was hard, and a bit dangerous, to get up to the top shelves, which were at about 16 feet (the roof was angled).

Looking at that big wall, my principle of organization became likelihood of use. That is, the greater the chance I would need a book, the closer I would have it to my desk.

Thus the area just behind my head became the reference area — encyclopedias of military history, Pentagon telephone directories, guides to international weaponry, and my favorite books about writing, such as Strunk & White. Just above that went books about the contemporary military and about our current wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, and terror.

At the other end of the room, at the very top of the shelves, went books about nuclear war and Russia. They were reachable only by ladder. But I figured that if nuclear war ever occurred, me and the bookshelf would be gone with it. And I figured the Russia story was over. I still think it is, because it is a declining nation, both economically and demographically. But yeah, if I were organizing the shelves now, I’d have the Russia books a bit closer to hand.

By the way, I was surprised to see that Stavridis is a huge Hemingway fan. Oh well. No accounting for taste. I give Hemingway a good spanking in my new book.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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