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Friday, October 24, 2014

"It is a book you will not be able to put down often enough."

I was not favorably impressed by Bruce Allen Murphy's recent biography of Antonin Scalia, Scalia: A Court of One. It was certainly a substantial labor, but in my view not a successful one as a matter of either substance or style. My review of the book is finally out in Commonweal. I note that Commonweal, which is currently celebrating its ninetieth birthday, is currently providing free access to the entire site for registered readers.

A number of people were struck by how favorably the book was treated in some early reviews by liberal writers, despite what I consider its highly evident flaws. (By no means all of of the liberally inclined reviewers praised it, to be sure.) It was also the target of enthusiastic evisceration by conservative writers, albeit there was much more basis for those criticisms. I suggest in the review that there are in fact two or three sound basic points in the book, but those points are not new. And

[w]hat’s new, alas, is not useful. Murphy['s book] is full of opinions and speculations. The opinions are conventional, the speculations tendentious. They’re easy to spot, at least: you know you’ve reached the end of the record and the beginning of fanciful speculation when the footnotes suddenly vanish. There are countless examples of overconfident speculations that quickly become treated as fact, and of downright questionable conclusions. 

I conclude:

Whether Scalia: A Court of One is good or bad, fair or not, has been largely irrelevant [to a number of early reviews and discussions]. What matters is the occasion the book provides for liberals to come together in gleeful disdain for their stock villain, or for conservatives to gather in joyful defense of their hero. They’ve relived the Scalia controversy rather than reviewing the book. An experienced judicial biographer, Murphy has chosen well and labored hard—but in vain. 

Enjoy. And be sure to read Justin Driver's excellent review of the book in The New Republic, whose "back of the book" continues to delight.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 24, 2014 at 11:31 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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