A Mildly Embarrassed Philistine

A while ago I found myself basking in the sun beside a swimming pool, with not a great deal troubling me. The anxiety-free break had allowed me with pleasure to work my way through an interesting and informative biography and the moment was right quickly to find another book to read. Scouring through the available literature my attention was captured immediately by a highly regarded legal/crime novel by a well-known author and I immediately settled down for a relaxing read. Not the fault of the book or its author, I am convinced, but several pages in I began to become frustrated with it. I just wasn’t in the mood to read about the various fictional characters’ thoughts, feelings and emotions, the in-depth descriptions of their pasts that had brought them to the moment in question, the décor of the rooms and so on. I wanted to get on somewhat to the core of the story and to the outcome. Before too long I gave up on that book and picked up another but my problem persisted. My temperament not being right, on closing the second book I declared to my companions that I was done with fiction, that I prefer to read non-fiction for useful and entertaining information purposes and am otherwise happy with cinema, television, radio and theatre.

All nonsense, of course as however much of a philistine I most certainly am, it would be absurd to write off the medium of well-written fiction other than in a moment of frustration. I recognise equally the pointlessness of seeking to compare media that are simply not comparable. However, the experience set me thinking, however, about why both in career and general terms my preference is with law books (in all delivery media) and other sources of information of that ilk. The ultimately impossible search for objective information, some notion of facts, solutions and outcomes appeals to me more than the imagination and experiences of even talented fiction writers, the clue perhaps being in the word “fiction”; I prefer real. I was reminded also when as a law student much of my time was spent with particular friends whose field of study was psychology. Although it was more entertaining to sit in bars discussing the merits of psychology versus law as academic disciplines, rather than attend tutorials on the latter subject, I knew I was in the right place. My friends reminded me that they were interesting and open-minded divergent thinkers who benefited from limitless imagination and seeing possibility everywhere, while I was a narrow-minded convergent thinker, just looking for an answer based on available evidence. No doubt they were correct and my ignorance of the study of psychology is indeed great but I was not unhappy.

The pretence of a search for facts is real but has to be an accepted compromise. Much too frequently quoted, I accept, but as Nietzsche may have written, in approximate terms, “it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations ..”. Still, wrapped in the idea of delivery of well-sourced and properly researched information, backed up with interpretation and evidence presented to agreed standards, lies a form of writing that appeals to me in preference to others. Not so much for me the elegance of poetry, replete with obscure, if not impossible to comprehend metaphor and unnecessary simile. Rather the forensic description in simple words that leave little room for misinterpretation and the acceptance that x does not have to be expressed as similar to y but is simply x. My preferred books don’t have to be or be likened to “journeys”, for example. For me, they are and are ideally like what they are; the new black is black. I completely accept that language is constantly evolving and that it is impossible and undesirable to write and speak without the use of metaphor. Nonetheless, where its purpose might be to deceive, confuse, obscure or to seek to disguise the user’s ignorance, then I mistrust it.

What I like about published information that is presented in the style of the high quality legal tome is that the information and especially the supporting tools and propositions is its purposefulness. While it is generally accepted that there is rarely such a goal as the definitive answer, the discipline of searching for facts, of each proposition being supported by explanation and tangible source reference is extremely appealing. Rarely have I come across high points of the writing craft when reviewing legal and professional writing. Suffice to get the subject coverage, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure more or less right, excising the split infinitives and excessive adjectives and that generally should be good enough.

The discipline is both reflected in and driven by the convenience of legal words and phrases being judicially and by statute, at least in the Common Law tradition and in part thanks to the legal publishers and their editors, defined in the various sources that are available. Unlike in a recent, albeit somewhat inebriated argument with a friend whose academic discipline had been in sociology, our failure to make progress lay in our inability to settle early on an agreed meaning of “society”. How convenient for me it would have been to agree to the definition of the word as set out in one of the eminent legal dictionaries but I doubt if that would have suited my friend. Instead we rightly concluded that neither of us, especially I, knew what the other was talking about.

For me, great legal and professional information of the sort that the best professional publishers produce, seeks to inform, interpret, guide and enlighten the professional user; where they can be flawed, it is when they purport to give advice. The latter is the work of the advisers themselves. The heart of legal writing that I admire is in the footnotes, citations, links, tools and cross-references – however structured, the indices that are conceptual and more than extractions of words and phrases, the tables of cases and statutes, etc., underpinned by the over-riding principle that no guidance will be included that is not supported by appropriate authority. Having an expert author and a competent and appropriately qualified editor is rather important too. One has to hope, in the light of continuing merger and acquisition activity, the unsurprising disposal of Wolters Kluwer’s UK HR consulting and tax fee protection services units being the latest example, that healthy and meaningful competition will ensure that these criteria are neither diminished nor abandoned. Likewise, one would wish that publishers’ occasional avarice and stupidity will not accelerate their own downfall. As to the Wolters Kluwer (Croner and CCH) disposal, what a turnaround from when they and others boasted that consulting and fee protection were the strategic and financial ways forward! The skeletal remains (with apologies for the metaphor) of what is left, I would argue, is unsustainable and deeply unattractive, certainly as a run-down publishing business.

Back to the hypothesis, while, true to form, I’m currently reading a quasi-legal book, Workplace Equality in Europe, transparently, the real objective in these confessions of a philistine with not a shred of spirituality, of course, is to indicate deep envy of those talented dreamers, inventers of fictional stories and wordsmiths that one might like to be. Maybe even worse, the ability competently to write a law (or any other) book is non-existent in my case and, sadly, is preferably left to those who can. I have to be content to remain at best or worst a middle-man of culture.


  1. If you’re looking for fiction that will speak to you, try _The Dog_ by Joseph O’Neill.

    I have no idea what non-lawyers see in it.

  2. Thanks A.

    I’ll check it out. Just hoping that it’s not a talking dog.