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Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Little Legal Academy and the Big Idea Book

Why does law insist on remaining an article field? In law schools, many professors never aspire to write books. Perhaps worse, many don’t have a book idea in them. In my view, our lack of emphasis on books—and especially on "big idea" books—is detrimental. When legal scholars get together, their conversations seldom concern big idea books. There are too many articles, opinions, and statutes to discern. Law review articles are the coin of the realm, and, as a result, we face a dearth of big idea books—by which I mean books that try to capture or espouse a grand theory or strategy of life. Without big idea books, we are left with far fewer big ideas.

In other fields, big idea books proliferate. Take foreign affairs, where such books are a fixture. Indeed, they are the only game in town.  From Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, to Joseph Nye’s Soft Power, to Henry Kissinger's many home runs, ideas are backed by books. And big ideas by big idea books. Every foreign policy thinker whose ideas have withstood the test of time has written a big idea book. In the think tank world, such books are also ubiquitous. Think of Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, In many other fields, they similarly abound. Consider Stephen Hawkings’s A Brief History of Time in physics, James Waston’s The Double Helix in biology and genetics, and the many such books in economics. Thomas Piketty’s Capital is a recent example.

I’m not claiming that we don’t have best-selling authors in the legal academy. We do. And I’m not claiming that we don’t have books. That would be silly. Obviously, we have plenty of both. I’m not even claiming that we don’t have big idea books. Rather, what I’m arguing is that we don’t have enough of them. And that we don’t place enough emphasis on them, either. A law professor friend told me recently that he had no time for such books. They took too long to write, did not fit his research needs, and were not available (wait for it ... wait for it) on Hein-on-Line.

Alas, that’s a problem. To me, this kind of thinking makes the legal academy seem small-minded. Its ideas, confined to the four corners of a single document, become inconsequential to the big idea men (and women) of the world. I believe that articles play an important role, don't get me wrong. But they do not provide the proper forum for big ideas—which are better sold through books. These are the most important ideas we want our fellow citizens to understand, ideas that by their very nature draw a simple, common, and shared thread from the legal academy to the greater, outside world. For such ideas to proliferate, it is time for legal scholars to change their view of books. A new generation must stand up for big ideas.

Even our big idea thnkers realize that not all of their ideas are as big as they could be. In Lincoln Caplan's recent profile of Cass Sunstein, Sunstein said of the Chicago economist Richard Thaler, a frequent coauthor with whom Sunstein wrote Nudge, “If you look at his academic articles and his very few books, he tends not to hit singles and doubles, he likes to hit home runs, and that’s just not my style. I have itchier fingers than you can have if you’re only looking for home runs.”

I'll submit that more home runs come from books. I'll also admit that in Paul Horwitz’s excellent schema of the kinds of readers you meet, I’m the Publisher's Agent, though I prefer to call it "the Bookie.” Come see me with an article idea, and I'll likely talk you into turning it into a book. Either that or I will tell you that you should not be wasting your time on the idea in the first place. But who has ever workshopped a book? Well, it's time we start. 

Posted by Eugene Mazo on January 17, 2015 at 06:03 PM in Books | Permalink


Interesting post Eugene. Having just finished a big book (in length! I will let others judge the size of the ideas), I think books are great, but there are a couple of reasons I wanted to offer you as to why we are not predominantly a book culture. First, length. Law review articles are much longer than the articles in the fields where books are more typical. Therefore, we have much more space to "take off" in our non-book writing than, say, Watson faced in the extremely concise demands of science writing. We need books less than other fields in this regard. Second, open access. Law reviews by and large let authors keep their work free and open to the public. Book publishers do not. Open access increases significantly the amount of readers and most data suggsts the citations. On the citation front this is a good summary of the existing data and its limitations. http://openscience.com/open-access-increases-citations-yes-or-no/ Third, timeliness. Law professors tend to write more on timelier, quickly-changing areas than, say, philosophers. The long time it takes to write a book plus the lag in publishing also cut against books for our field.
Again, I am a huge fan of law books, I just think there are some systemic reasons why we don't see more and some of them (open access) are very good things.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jan 17, 2015 6:30:59 PM

This is an interesting post, but I don't think I agree with anything in it. For example, A Brief History of Time is not a book for physicists, The Double Helix not a book for biologists, and Capital in the 21st Century not a book for economists. Each was written to summarize previous technical work published in article form for the benefit of lay readers. If these are your ideas for "big books," then I think you mean to ask why law professors don't try to engage the public more. And if that's your question, I'd challenge the premise: my (untested) intuition is that law professors are in fact very much engaged with the general public, much more so than a variety of other fields (with the potential exception of biomedical scientists, whose work is almost exclusively published in article form).

Indeed, so very many legal scholars engage the public by writing books, nearly every one aiming at the high water mark of having a big impact (and, as with every other corner of the academy, failing more often than they succeed). It's true a book isn't required for tenure, but it's increasingly common for legal scholars to write books post-tenure. Many do it pre-tenure. Some even go on the job market with books under contract.

There's much to say about footnote fetishes and student editors and low expectations of productivity coupled with high salaries and much else that makes law schools unlike other slices of the academy in ways that make other scholars wonder how serious we are. But I don't think a difference in book culture is one of them.

Finally, I am also skeptical of the idea that length always correlates with impact or profundity. If anything, I think we as legal scholars err too much on the side of too much. Some of the most powerful ideas are expressed simply. To take an extreme example, each of Einstein's annus mirabilis papers was less than thirty pages, and the mass-energy equivalence paper but three pages.

Posted by: anon10 | Jan 17, 2015 9:15:30 PM

I agree with Glenn Cohen on all fronts, and I would just add that these differences result in part from the tradition of student-edited journals. Student-edited journals tend to be generalist journals, and authors writing for them usually have a non-expert audience in mind; the result is that law review articles are more "book like" in length and style than academic articles in other fields.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 17, 2015 10:21:27 PM

Law schools are professional schools. The traditional remains that law professors most commonly don't have any required academic training and never are required to write dissertations. The AALS process does not reward writing books, and in the current market, outside of maybe the very top schools, no committee will read books given the proxy heavy nature of an academic hiring process without the common academic standards and graduate training of other disciplines.

Longer law reviews are full of fluff, footnotes and generalist lit reviews. Academic books aren't longer because they are written for a general audience, they are long because they reflect a serious academic inquiry over many years, generally with novel empirical content - not just normative argumentation. Comparing the work that goes into a book in legal history to a "long" con law article is way off.

I remember reading on prawfsblawg years back with some law professors arguing over whether books were worth two or three articles. The comparison, like these self-interested comments, is ridiculous. But such is required for the academic veneer of what are functionally trade schools.

Posted by: anonecon | Jan 18, 2015 1:19:17 PM

My only addition to this is to say that books enable influence for your work beyond the law community, so that even a book that doesn't reach a trade audience still reaches scholars in other fields. And one reason there are not that many book writers among tenured legal scholars is that a law review oriented culture keeps reproducing itself. When your colleagues don't do books, the process of book writing can seem mysterious.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Jan 18, 2015 5:07:07 PM

A brief and somewhat tangential quibble. The Double Helix was not "written to summarize previous technical work published in article form for the benefit of lay readers." It was Jim Watson's autobiographical account of the events leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA, and as much about au pair girls in 1950s Cambridge and Linus Pauling's ambition as anything technical. Indeed, its working title was "Honest Jim." Had it been written to summarize technical work, I'm sure it wouldn't have received the negative reaction it did from Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick, just to name two people. Indeed, Crick so objected to it that the book significantly ruptured their friendship for a period. (Crick wrote to Watson on April 13, 1967 that the book was not even a history of the discovery of DNA, but "a fragment of your autobiography which covers the period you worked on DNA.") Originally Harvard University Press was to publish it, but the outcry about it was so significant that HUP abandoned it and Watson went to a commercial publisher (Atheneum).

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jan 19, 2015 9:41:24 AM

I agree with Mary Dudziak about the audience. I wrote Talent Wants to Be Free with a broader audience in mind and it has been extremely helpful for me to have published the book in researching my next law review projects: I have now had the opportunity to present my work in business schools and econ departments and in professional settings and industry settings, all of which I would not otherwise had been invited to and each one of these interactions helped me deepen my legal academic thinking. So I am strong believer that there should be room for both types of writings and that they enrich one another.

Posted by: orly lobel | Jan 19, 2015 1:50:21 PM

Jeff, I see what you're saying, but it's not exactly correct. My point was that The Double Helix wasn't a Big Idea book written to revolutionize biology; biologists weren't the audience (and, as you say, those biologists who did read it by and large hated it). Instead, it was meant to introduce non-biologists to the technical discoveries (and especially one of the discoverers) that preceded it. But in addition to having all kinds of color and controversy, the book is filled with summaries of technical research about the chemical structure of DNA, nucleotides, and, especially, the science behind the double helix itself. So yes, it was in fact written, in a personable tone and with controversial statements (and fabrications) "to summarize previous technical work published in article for for the benefit of lay readers."

Posted by: anon10 | Jan 20, 2015 4:15:04 PM

Oh, the irony of wide and effective communication of this idea via a blog post!

Posted by: andy | Jan 22, 2015 5:57:57 AM

I'd put at least part of the blame on citation metrics. The more those are reported as the be-all and end-all of scholarly productivity, the more pressure there is to write the article everyone can cite for a simple, memorable proposition. (And, with apologies for the meta, one reason I wrote a book was to critique algorithmic assessments of authority and quality, such as impact factors or h-indices.)

Having written a book (The Black Box Society), I can say all the effort (and there was a lot), was worth it. I am now in far more contact with scholars globally than I was before. Beyond the legal academy, it's reached the STS, sociology, and tech ethics communities. The book was reviewed in Nature, so it better reaches STEM audiences than many of my law review articles. I've done hourlong, half-hour, and 10 minute interviews on it for numerous media outlets. All these experiences hone one's skills at presenting a message for various audiences. And I agree with your premise that attorneys need to be more a part of many public debates than they are presently.

Posted by: Frank | Jan 22, 2015 12:45:35 PM

Would you rather have a great big idea book (approx 90,000 words) or three Top 25 law review articles (approx 75,000 words)? Assume the content is the same. The law review articles may get you more lateral offers, and therefore bigger pay raises. The book will get you a book. In fact, most committees don't know how to evaluate a book.. but they know law review article placement as the lazy proxy for prestige.

Posted by: Book Writer | Jan 22, 2015 3:45:41 PM

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