In what has become an annual tradition, we asked the Law School’s distinguished faculty to tell us about the last good book they read. The results cover a wide range of genres and topics, from law to history, nonfiction to fiction. Click on each cover for the recommendation.
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Pat Conroy, The Great Santini (1976).
Reading Conroy’s obituary this year, I realized that I’d never read any of his bestsellers, so I’ve been catching up. I think that, of his work, Santini is my favorite. The book provides a reminder of what many of the middle-class, two-parent, male wage-earner families of the 1950s and 1960s were like, and it wasn't Leave It to Beaver. The prose is great, and Conroy's ear for dialogue was right-on.
John Inazu, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. An unfortunately timely book. Inazu makes the case, in engaging prose and with passionate empathy, for finding ways to live together despite our deep moral conflicts. One of the book's great strengths is that it covers a wide range of applications, from religion to sexual orientation, from public action to private action. And the book also reflects a moral confidence, maintaining that we can and should find ways to peaceably coexist without becoming skeptical about our own values.
Ben Winters, The Last Policeman. A small town policeman solves crimes while the world discovers that an asteroid is soon going to collide with earth and end life as we know it. The mystery plots are good, but the really interesting parts are the descriptions of ordinary life in a doomed world. Some people panic, some people slide into debauchery, but many people just continue to go on trying to do their jobs as best they can. You might fairly call this an "existentialist detective novel." It is the first in a trilogy, and all three books are very good.
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Like Justice Sotomayor, I was raised at poverty level by a hardworking single mother and her extended family in a household where English was not the principal language and went from an inner city New York Catholic school to the Ivy League. My family never made it out of the tenements into the projects, her father was an important part of her life until his early death, her family spoke Spanish, mine German, but her story was closer to the story of my life than any other autobiography I’ve read, and much in the book touched me. As another New Yorker, from yet another borough, prepares for the Presidency, I also found resonant her teenaged application of the lesson of Lord of the Flies to an only very slightly corrupt police officer in a drug-infested neighborhood:
“There was something more to it, beyond the betrayal of trust, beyond the corruption of someone whose uniform is a symbol of the civic order. How do things break down? In Lord of the Flies, the more mature of those lost boys start off with every intention of building a moral, functional society on their island, drawing on what they remember—looking after the ‘littluns,’ building the shelters, keeping the signal fire burning. Their little community gradually breaks down all the same, battered by those who are more self-indulgent, those who are driven by ego and fear. Which side was the cop on? The boys need rules, law, order, to keep their worst instincts in check. The conch they blow to call a meeting or hold for the right to speak stands for order, but it holds no power in itself. Its only power is what they agree to honor. It is a beautiful thing, but fragile.”
I’m currently reading The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy by Harvard economist Dani Rodrik. Since the 1990s, Rodrik has been a critic of the idea that the flow of goods, money, and people should be unrestricted. In 2010, Rodrik wrote this book to warn that, if globalization is not tempered to minimize disruption and ensure that the gains are evenly shared, a democratic backlash is likely to occur. Although written six years ago, the book offers one of the best explanations of this year’s political developments in the United States and Europe.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is a sweeping, heterodox view of our development as a species; it examines and recasts historical events in unexpected and thought-provoking trend lines. A great read for those who enjoy zooming out and examining things from a broad historical perspective.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is an eye-opening perspective on America’s working-class. It’s well-written and approachable, offering a first-person account of the author’s journey from a poor Rust Belt town to an elite law school. It is a compelling and sobering look at a part of America that is often overlooked.
I’m having fun with Going to Hell in a Hen Basket, by Robert Alden Rubin. Words are a lawyer’s stock in trade. Most of that trade is deadly serious, so it is enjoyable to see what happens when words go wrong. This book is about eggcorns and malapropisms—for example, “going to hell in a hen basket” when the writer probably meant “going to hell in a hand basket.” Malapropisms don’t make any sense. Eggcorns do, or might if circumstances were a little different. “Hailed into court” is an eggcorn, since one might get to court by taxi, though the writer probably meant “haled into court” and didn’t know the difference between the old “hale” and the modern “hail.” Here’s a quotation from the book, with the example from a newspaper article: “Haphazard means subject to hap (chance) and hazard (risk), as in a roll of the dice or without any real plan. The eggcorn version confuses it with phrases such as half-assed or half-cocked, conveying the same sense of unpreparedness. “Kentucky’s taxing, spending and borrowing policies are half-hazard, at best.” The book has hundreds more examples, most of them amusing and all of them warnings about the need for care when writing.
Apart from the usual Roman law texts, the book that I am reading, fitfully, is Amity Shlaes's Coolidge. He is a much misunderstood figure, was a strong president on most issues, and infinitely better than Woodrow Wilson who was wrong on some many points it is hard to keep track.
Richard Hofstadter's book and 1964 Harper’s article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, dazzles with relevance for our contemporary situation. It is worth quoting at some length:
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.... The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
Motivated proximately by anticommunism, Hofstadter documented various conspiracy-obsessed social and political movements back to our founding, from anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements in the 19th century, to the hysteria of McCarthyism. It is somewhat of a relief that the Republic has weathered many such storms, but at what human and cultural cost?
Japan 1941, by Eri Hotta, traces that fateful year and the series of unfortunate—and completely avoidable—events that led up to Pearl Harbor. At once an exploration of grand strategy and the anatomy of a decision, the book really demonstrates the pathology of collective decision-making. In Fall 1945, Hotta argues, no high level individual in the Government wanted war, but neither did any one have the courage or authority to stop the plans that had been put in place by lower level bureaucrats. At the fateful Imperial Conference of September 1941, Emperor Hirohito read a poem trying to call for peace but was misinterpreted by the military staff, setting in motion a train of events that led to the decimation of Japan.
I am reading: Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin, The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age (2016). It is a fascinating story of an Italian who ended up at the University of Chicago. Plus, the book has brought me as close as I am likely to come to an understanding of the science that went into the Atom Bomb.
The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff
A high-flying mayor and a hard-charging governor—bolstered by a $100 million gift from Facebook’s founder—tried to turn around one of the most troubled urban school districts in the nation. When Mark Zuckerberg announced the donation on Oprah, many of us were optimistic about the project. Former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff explains why the effort didn’t turn out nearly as well as we might have hoped. Carefully researched; engagingly written; and ultimately quite dispiriting—but essential reading for anyone interested in education policy and institutional reform.
This past summer, in preparation for a trip to Turkey, I read The Museum of Innocence by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. The novel tells of a man who, on the brink of a long-awaited, high society engagement party in Istanbul, falls in love with and becomes obsessed by a cousin. The book relates how this obsession plays out over many years and gives a wonderful account of secular and wealthy society in an overwhelmingly poor and Muslim country. Intruding from time to time in the narrative are real life events in Istanbul and Turkey including street demonstrations, revolution and curfews. A clue to the meaning of the title and the allegorical aspects of the novel is provided by a quote which precedes the narrative: “These were innocent people, so innocent that they thought poverty was a crime that wealth would allow them to forget.”
In the course of his obsession, the protagonist collects an almost unending and widely varied succession of physical objects which are in some manner connected to the woman who is the object of his obsession. After the publication of the novel, Pamuk decided to create an actual Museum of Innocence, ostensibly containing a selection from the numerous objects he has collected. (In paper form, the book contains a ticket entitling one to admission to this quite marvelous and award-winning museum in Istanbul.) Those who read this book and find themselves in Istanbul will want to visit the museum.
A while ago, a student recommended that I read Bucket of Face, a work of “bizarro fiction” by Eric Hendrixson. Unfamiliar with the genre but intrigued by a plotline set in a world populated by sentient fruit, I decided to give the book a shot. The book tells the tale of (human) doughnut-shop employee Charles and his insecure (kiwi-fruit) girlfriend Sara as they get mixed up with the fruit mafia and find themselves pursued by a ruthless (tomato) hitman. It was entertaining and (as advertised) bizarre; I was carried along by the madcap action and the reckless indulgence in nuttiness. Occasionally, though, the prose lacked polish and threads of the plot seemed to fray. Yet by the time I reached the end of this short novel, the loose ends of the story had come together, and I found the denouement surprisingly satisfying on an emotional level. In its closing pages, the story of a homicidal tomato absconding with a dead pop star’s face had achieved an almost mythic, serene poignancy.
Selected Poems, 1968-2014, by Paul Muldoon. A rich collection of poems that speak in many voices and manifest a variety of moods, from the melancholy to the whimsical and points in between. Muldoon is a master of wordplay and a wonderful companion.
As I watch the calendar days before my second child’s due date dwindle, and my nesting instinct keeps me up for hours at a time in the middle of the night, I turn to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide by Penny Simkin inter alia. It is a helpful reminder of what I experienced last time and of what might be different this time. Of the books I’ve seen on pregnancy, this is the best at being factual and including actual data, without being overwhelming. It makes recommendations without adopting a judgmental tone. It is practical and informative and readable at 4am. Certainly, I would not recommend the book for everyone’s holiday list, but this is a truthful account of what I’ve been reading lately, and I would certainly recommend Simkin as an advisor to anyone who is anticipating a new baby.
For an eighteenth-century mood of empire and migration, I recommend Linda Colley’s Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History. The life and travels of an Englishwoman who journeyed from the West Indies to Portsmouth, Menorca, Morocco, India, and back to England. Bonus features include thoughtful, accessible meditations on the uses and limits of archival history.
I am reading Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman. It's a fascinating albeit very sympathetic ethnographic study of the infamous hacker group, Anonymous, that more than anything else I have read about Anonymous helped me understand why members of the group do what they do, as well as the perils and pleasures of their hacktivism. It's also a really fun read! Highly recommended.
Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016)
This bracing and generally quite readable book by two political scientists punctures various myths about democracy as manifesting the “will of the people.” Voters, they find, often adjust their views to fit those of the candidate of their party, rather than choosing candidates and parties based on how well they comport with the voters’ own views on policy questions. Most voters are massively ignorant about policy questions, economics events, and even basic questions of cause and effect. Voters are unable to distinguish between events for which leaders bear causal responsibility and those they don’t—voters have punished incumbents, for example, for floods, droughts, and even shark attacks in one case. Achen and Bartels argue, instead, that it is “group identity”—racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, sometimes geographic—that drives party identification, which in turn drives voting behavior. Only at the margins do ideological preferences impact decisions. Written before the 2016 Presidential election, it seems particularly helpful in understanding it. Republican voters supported a Republican nominee who had rejected many staples of the Republican brand since Reagan: they adjusted their views to the candidate. African-Americans did not turn out for Clinton as they had for Obama, a member of their group, and that depressed turnout was disastrous for Clinton. One of the few groups that seems to have been moved by ideological concerns were the white union voters who switched to the Republicans under Trump in 2016 from Obama in prior elections, primarily because he (like Bernie Sanders) spoke to a shared sense that various international trade agreements had hurt American industrial workers. Yet even that group seemed unaware that most of Trump’s concrete policy proposals would not benefit them. Although the authors try to derive some hopeful morals from this picture of democracy in practice, it seems clear that the traditional picture of an informed citizenry deliberating about what is best for the polity is pure fiction.
Nutshell is not Ian McEwan’s best book, but it is so imaginatively written (by a fetus who suspects a crime) that it must be read. It is pure fun. And then I’d recommend some books I have been reading for a Greenberg Seminar on Conspiracy Theories. Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is especially good. Then Google and read Louis Menand’s The New Yorker essay “Unpopular Front”. There are plenty of lowbrow conspiracy theory books, but along with Wolfe’s I recommend the rather edifying Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro.
I have been reading Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent, for the Greenberg Seminar that Tom Ginsburg and I teach on wine and law. The book artfully connects Prohibition with broader social developments of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the women’s suffrage movement, the rise of populism and nativism, and even the advent of the income tax. Rather than viewing Prohibition in isolation, Okrent argues that the Sixteenth Amendment (income tax), Eighteenth Amendment (prohibition), and Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage) should be thought of as a complementary trilogy.
Octavia E. Butler, Kindred. In my experience, the best uses of time travel are in historic novels where they operate as a device for connecting the reader more deeply with the past. This novel is one of the best examples of that I’ve seen, as the protagonist travels involuntarily from the 1970s into the era of American slavery.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden. This is a classic I had missed until this year and it was every bit the epic story I was promised, full of wonderful and terrible characters and places. I was definitely not expecting to meet a female serial killer.
More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider (2016)
Our colleague and his co-author investigate one of the most oft-used regulatory solutions: mandatory disclosure. Their interdisciplinary analysis upends the conventional wisdom about the efficacy of mandatory disclosure and has implications for many areas of law.
The University of Chicago: A History (2015) by John W. Boyer, Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History and the College and Dean of the College, is the magisterial and comprehensive account of the University’s history. It contains fascinating and insightful encounters with the great and influential personalities of the University, and it reveals how the University of Chicago’s distinctive values and culture came to be.
Can patent litigation inspire an exciting historical novel? Graham Moore shows it is possible with The Last Days of Night (2016). A young Paul Cravath (yes, that Cravath) represents Westinghouse in its patent litigation with Edison while also touring the reader through the intersections of industry, technology, and law in the late 19th Century. A fun and breezy story for anyone, not just lawyers.
The Tenants of Time by Thomas Flanagan. For fans of Irish history (who are willing to tackle an 800+ page book), this is a very interesting work of historical fiction, blending fictional and real characters and events. It tells the story of the spectacularly unsuccessful Fenian uprising of 1867 in a small village in Ireland, and its consequences through the balance of that century. It focuses upon three close friends involved in the uprising and how it affected the course of their lives, as pieced together by a young historian later trying to make sense of what happened. (As an aside, I hadn’t known that the word “boycott” came from the actions of the Irish Land League in the latter half of the 1800s when English land agent Captain Boycott refused to lower the rents of his Irish tenant farmers.) This is actually the second book in a trilogy of historical fiction about Ireland, and I’m planning to read the other two now as well.
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road). Wonderful anti-war literature from World War I. The first book, Regeneration, was perhaps my favorite (although the third book won the Booker Prize). The first book takes place in a mental institution for military personnel suffering from “shellshock,” and is based upon historical meetings between a well-known psychologist and two British poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, returned from war to the mental institution. What is actually more a sign of insanity—becoming a pacifist and refusing to return to battle after being traumatized by it, or wanting to return even knowing what faces you?
When Breath Becomes Air is Paul Kalanithi’s account of confronting death at age 37. After more than ten years of medical training, Kalanithi is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. In that moment, he must grapple with the reality of never actually practicing what he has trained so long for, let alone to eventually pursue the writing career to which he has long aspired. To call this book a mere memoir would be a disservice to Kalanithi’s literary grace and his rich meditations on life and medicine. When Breath Becomes Air is also a reminder that a dream deferred can be a dream foregone.
I hope it isn't cheating to recommend the libretto of a musical, but really, the best thing I have recently read, and reread, is Lin-Manuel Miranda's libretto for the musical Hamilton, included with the CDs. I've seen the show too, but digging into the details of the script is even more rewarding, and I ended up writing an article about it. Hamilton is a deeply intelligent meditation about political power, ambition, envy, and love. It's about our Founding, but it has resonance for our own time. By all means see the show, but don't stop there.
Depending on how one counts, twelve people have EGOTed, that is, won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award and one of those is the late Mike Nichols, X’53 (that is UChicago speak for he attended The College but didn’t graduate). Nichols attributed his success to his days as an improviser and all of that started during his time at The University and at the Compass Theater, where he performed with Elaine May, who seemingly attended classes at the University but was never officially a student. The Compass, originally located at 55th Street and University Avenue, was where improv was born in the U.S. and the work there eventually led to the creation of Second City and to much of American comedy as we know it. Janet Coleman’s book sets out that history and should be of interest to anyone interested in comedy or the University of Chicago (and if you care about both, it is, as they say, a must read).
Right now I’m reading Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Jeff Smith. Smith is a former Missouri senator (and Political Science PhD) who, after being nabbed for campaign finance violations, served a year and a day in federal prison in Kentucky. The book is a memoir of his time “on the inside” coupled with reform proposals based in part on what he saw there, including, most prominently, an embarrassing waste of human potential.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
Dystopia is all the rage right now, but On Such a Full Sea is the best dystopic novel I’ve read in a very long time. It takes place in a not-so-distant future in which the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened and deepened in a way that feels presciently possible. The book envisions a trifurcated United States where the suburbs have become the ridiculously affluent “Charter villages,” the cities have become cookie-cutter, Truman-show-esque places that supply and feed the Charters, and the rest of the country has devolved into the “open counties,” vast stretches of Mad Maxian lawlessness and desolation. It’s superficially a different world but—like any good dystopia—the new America that Lee envisions isn’t so different from our own.
The book’s hero is a tiny but powerful teenager named Fan who leaves the sheltering sameness of the city of B-more (the new name for Baltimore) and sets off on an odyssey through the open counties in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has mysteriously disappeared. Fan is an utterly unique character, vulnerable but quick-witted, persecuted but unshakable. She’s Odysseus and Christ and the Virgin Mary all rolled into one. There’s even a modern-day Greek chorus of sorts woven into the narration. Lee is a beautiful writer and a masterful storyteller. He has an amazing way of lulling us into a sense of security, taking us up to the very top of the rollercoaster without ever letting on that we’re about to rocket down to unthinkable depths. Things are never as they seem: idyllic scenes skew horrific without warning, while ominous set-ups turn out to be benign. I stayed up late several nights running, unable to wait to see where Fan’s journey would twist next. And images from this book stayed with me long after I turned the final surprising page.
I recently finished John O'Hara's Ten North Frederick, an illuminating and entertaining portrait of small-town mid-twentieth-century America. The protagonist, Joe Chapin, is a man who seems like he has it all: wealth; good looks; a devoted wife; and the respect of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. But below the surface there is trouble. Joe has political ambitions but not the political skill to realize them. Joe and his wife secretly detest each other. Gibbsville is starting to think less of Joe as he lapses into alcoholism. O'Hara weaves all these strands into a gripping story, a classic in the same vein as Revolutionary Road, Mad Men, and other works that highlight the seamy underbelly of a supposedly sedate era.
Michael Morell spent most of his career at the CIA, serving both as Deputy Director and Acting Director. I got to know him when we served together on the five-person Review Group President Obama appointed in 2014 to recommend changes in our foreign national intelligence programs in the wake of the Snowden disclosures. In The Great War of Our Time, Morell traces in remarkable detail such extraordinary moments as 9/11 (he was with President Bush at the time), the Benghazi incident, and the capture of Bin Laden. Morell worked closely with Presidents Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, and was at the center of the American national security community for several critical decades. The book, like Morell himself, is clear, honest, direct, and illuminating. I should add that this fall Michael Morell taught three classes with me at my home with students in our Greenberg Seminar titled National Security: Liberty and Security in a Changing World.
Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2015, and the award was well-deserved. I have been known to write the occasional letter of recommendation. So I loved the author’s device of weaving together a novel consisting entirely of letters penned by the novel’s increasingly exasperated protagonist, Professor Jason Fitger. The novel is a terrific send-up of academic politics, interpersonal vouching, and the plight of the humanities, sure to appeal to our alumni in the professoriate. But woven into the Ivory Tower humor is a more universal narrative that will resonate with those who have spent time in any well-meaning but dysfunctional organization. Schumacher makes you care about the characters, or at least the versions of those characters who come across in Fitger’s funny, poignant, and not altogether-unreliable letters of recommendation.
The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier
This book provides an unparalleled look at the subterranean world of bank secrecy, shell corporations, and hidden assets. The authors leaked the internal documents of a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, that specializes in providing shell corporations for both legitimate and illegitimate uses. The documents show the ownership of almost 500,000 offshore entities linked to dictators, criminals, politicians, athletes, and others.
I’ve been reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. This four-part series follows childhood friends Elena and Lila from childhood in Naples, Italy to their adult lives. The first book started somewhat slowly (stick with it if you find yourself thinking the same thing!), but about halfway through, I was completely drawn into Ferrante’s world. I read the second book in just a few days and now I’m on to the third. Ferrante’s writing style is intensely personal, and the books are a candid reflection on female friendship, self-doubt, and how our past influences our future.