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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shieber on the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law

The Co-Op's series of reviews of new law books (to which I contributed) has been excellent so far.  Allow me to point readers to a recent effort in that series: William Shieber's review of the recently published Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law.  There are a couple of occasions where I think he does not leaven his criticism with enough praise.  I think the volume is a useful, although not indispensable, one, and readers who are in the American legal academy or interested in American law will enjoy dipping into it.  That said, I think he rightly picks up on one thing that bothered me when I read the book, and one thing that I didn't notice but that I think he's quite right about.  The latter point is that the book is too Yale-heavy, an observation he makes with great humor. 

The former point is that the book too often publishes somewhat hagiographical biographies, often by those with a connection to the person they are writing about -- and especially bios of judges by their former clerks. Miss Jean Brodie's dictum seems to operate here: give a judge a clerk when he or she is 25 and ready to admire his boss uncritically, and that clerk is the judge's for life.  I don't know whether most clerks fall prey to this phenomenon, but certainly most clerks who bother to write about their former judge do.  (With, as I have said before, the exception of Posner on Brennan, and a few other examples here and there.)  It seems a special shame that this should be true in the legal academy, where, as Noel Annan writes with mixed views in his splendid book The Dons, intellectuals often "move gingerly to judgements about people" and "give their first allegiance to ideas and (so they believe) to the truth," not to personal loyalty.  A little more of the British obituary style, a greater mixture of affection and critical assessment, would have greatly benefited these biographical entries.  

I do like the book.  But I think Shieber's criticisms are apt and delightfully put.  Both the book and the review are well worth your time.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 22, 2010 at 08:02 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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A fascinating review and insightful comment, Paul. Particularly for those with a relationship to the subject, it is often difficult, in obituary or short-form biography, to comfortably occupy the space between hagiography and condemnation. No doubt "a greater mixture of affection and critical assessment" would serve the academy well. Nicely put.

Only obliquely related -- for an obituary pungently free of affection, check out Hunter S. Thompson's obit on Richard Nixon, http://www.counterpunch.org/thompson02212005.html.

Posted by: Brendan Maher | Sep 22, 2010 9:47:08 AM

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