Column

Reading: Learning, Lounging and Escaping

I did it. I read a hundred books (#100Books) on my sabbatical. The whole list can be found here. Why did I do it? I set off to read 100 books because I felt I could and I should.

As lawyers, we spend so much of our time reading but so little time reading books. I can remember years when I’m not sure if I read a single book outside of work. Even as a law professor, I would only read two or three books of fiction a year. As a law student, I took a course called “Law and Literature: Spiritual Hygiene for Lawyers”. Basically, it seemed like a great way to read books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. I figured that 20 years after graduating law school, I needed some more spiritual hygiene.

The rules that I established for myself were clear; after all, I am a “Rule of Law” guy who favours transparency. 1. Any type of book would count: fiction or non-fiction; research or pleasure. 2. I actually had to “read” the whole book; not simply consult it or use it for research.

Beyond these “rules”, I had few guiding principles. Over the years, I had accumulated various books on a “To Read” bookcase; I aimed to get through these. Otherwise, I would go where the bookbindings (no e-books) took me.

There were books that were disappointing, like my hero Cal Ripken’s autobiography The Only Way I Know. I guess some do and others write. More interesting was John Feinstein’s, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball.

There were books that I took the opportunity to re-read and discuss with my son: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I forgot that the latter is barely 100 pages and was published in August 1945 while England and the Soviet Union were still allies. There were only a couple of books that I had forgotten that I had read before.

There were books that I had always wanted to read like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and others like Fred Barnes, Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush that I wish I hadn’t. I was able to combine public law with literature by reading John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and then William J. Galbraith’s excellent biography of our literary GG, John Buchan: Model Governor General.

As I was living in Jerusalem, I read quite a few books about the city including the acclaimed Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I found that book a depressing account of how people have been killing each other in the Holy City for over 3000 years. I much preferred stories of people living in Jerusalem, like Bertha Vester Spafford’s memoirs of living in the American colony founded by her Chicago parents. Her family still owns the iconic American Colony hotel in Jerusalem.

I read a lot of fiction: Richard Ford’s award-winning Canada which actually has very little to do with our country; Rachel Joyce’s delightful The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and his Enemies: A Love Story; M.G. Vassanji’s wonderful The Book of Secrets; Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua’s biting but hilarious Dancing Arabs; Ian McEwan’s masterful The Children Act whose protagonist is a 59 year-old female judge; Richard Wagamese’s beautiful Keeper’n Me; and Philip Slayton’s naughty and fun Bay Street: A Novel (lest people think it a work of non-fiction).

I read perhaps too many memoirs, an often disappointing genre. However, Roy McMurtry’s Memoirs and Reflections was an example of why retired judges should write books. John Paul Stevens’ Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution is an example of why retired judges should not. On the subject of judges, barrister and now Baron David Pannick’s Judges remains a classic and I had the pleasure of telling him so when I had the good fortune to meet him in Jerusalem.

I read and reviewed two books for legal journals: Oxford’s republication of the 1922 classic by W.P.M. Kennedy, The Constitution of Canada with an insightful introduction by U of T Professor Martin Friedland and James Moliterno’s excellent book The American Legal Profession in Crisis: Resistance and Responses to Change. The Kennedy review can be found here and the other is forthcoming in Legal Ethics.

Most depressing was Israeli novelist David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. But the most beautiful was another Israeli novelist Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy.

As a political junkie, I love reading about Canadian politics. I was enthralled by Geoffrey Stevens’ The Player: The Life and Times of Dalton Camp. After Brooke Jeffrey’s Dismantling Canada: Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda and Michael Harris’ Party of One, I grew tired of the anti-Harper political genre although I was pleasantly surprised by dissident former Tory MP Brent Rathgeber’s Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada. The memoirs of another former politician was another nice surprise: former Ontario Minister of Finance Greg Sorbara’s, The Battlefield of Ontario Politics was unusually short (under 200 pages), self-reflective, and insightful.

So what were the best books?

Biggest surprise: Yale Law Professor Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder. A law professor who can write good fiction? There is a joke in there somewhere. Best memoir: Israeli author Amos Oz’s, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Equal parts of both. Best historical literature: A tie between Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Best Canadian non-fiction: Chantal Hebert’s The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was. Best book on Constitutional Law: Peter J. McCormick’s The End of the Charter Revolution. With so much polemics and cheerleading out there, this book provides a fresh and insightful account of where we are today with the Charter and the Supreme Court.

And the best book of the 100? Hands down, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. His Three Day Road placed a close second. Both are must reads for the summer.

Comments

  1. Wonderful of you to share your list Adam!

    With our downtown Vancouver Chapters closing in a few weeks, we are entertaining the idea of creating a book nook. Your list helps us curate a list which should span from Lord Denning to David Lat.

    Outside of your 100 books, do you have a top 10 list of Canadian books on law?

  2. Thanks for sharing your list and reviews, Adam. I had meant to check out The Orenda and will make sure that I do!