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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I recently read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards. The novel’s main character is someone from the year 1887, who awakens in in the year 2000 and tries to make sense of what he finds. He marvels at how, in the twenty-first century, all varieties of music are available at a touch of a button. The credit card has replaced money. Shopping requires only choosing what one likes before it is automatically delivered, often the same day. The novel provides a rich description of life at the dawn of the twenty-first century and how it compares to life in the Gilded Age. Looking Backwards was, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular American novel of the nineteenth century.
Andy Weir, The Martian. The protagonist is a UChicago alum: a stranded astronaut named Mark Watney who survives on Mars thanks to his mastery of botany and his stubborn attempts to "hack" the barren planet even when that seems pointless. If that sounds good you'll like the book, which is excellent in almost the opposite way as the recent movie with Matt Damon, though I liked both.
Jim Leitzel, Law and Economics: A Guide to the Curious. The UChicago connection this time is even more palpable: the author is the director of the Public Policy program in the college (and taught me one of my most formative classes). Leitzel's book is probably the only law and economics primer to open with discussion of Vladimir Nabokov's lost novel, and to close with a discussion of the Parthenon marbles. It remains witty and entertaining throughout.
You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is a thriller about self-deception, told mostly through the main character’s internal dialogue with herself, and the plot twists give her much to ponder. The book is rich with wit and cynicism (mostly of the self-deprecating kind), reminding some reviewers of Tom Wolfe storytelling. Unputdownable.
Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works by Marie le Jars de Gournay (Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel, translators)
Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage by Pauli Murray
Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism by Paul Vallely
Books by an early seventeenth century French feminist, by a mid-twentieth century African-American feminist, and about a Pope who, however up-to-date he may otherwise be, may unfortunately not be a feminist.
I recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. This novel moves between recounting the horrific treatment of the POWs who were forced to help build the Thailand-Burma railroad during WWII and the memories of an Australian surgeon whose life was permanently changed by the ordeal. I thoroughly enjoyed the book because it is beautifully written and drew my attention to a part of WWII that I hardly knew about.
I recently read The End of Power by Moises Naim. It examines the way that power is created and wielded, and argues that power has become much easier to get but much harder to use and keep. This book illuminates this pattern in everything from finance to the spread of contemporary religious sects, and discusses some interesting ramifications for how we think about barriers to entry, control, politics, and markets.
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.
The Half Have Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist, is a powerful history of American slavery in the first half of the 19th century. Written in a distinctive voice with a novel structure, the book beautifully combines interesting macro data and individual narrative. Baptist shows how slavery changed over time, focusing on its brutal evolution and its dynamic involvement with capital markets.
Since my first visit some years ago (where I met Professor Huq), I have always loved Afghanistan and think it raises profound questions of political and legal order. Warlords, Strongman Governors and the State in Afghanistan, by Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a young political scientist at Columbia, is based on her remarkable PhD field research. Looking at the careers of a series of warlords, she seeks to understand the conditions under which warlords cooperate with a weak state-building project. She exposes an incredibly fluid environment of shifting alliances and strategies, in which individual warlords change their approaches depending on their position. She shows that the presence of rivals and the ability to leverage central resources are crucial factors in determining relations with the center. This is a book that gives more understanding than hope.
I have two current bedtime books:
Andrew Martin, Belles and Whistles. It is a slight book, dealing with famous English passenger trains.
Basil Mahon, The Man Who Changed Everything. It is a biography of the life and work of James Clerk Maxwell, the famous English scientist.
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.
Go Set a Watchman: A Novel by Harper Lee
From a lawyer’s perspective, the most interesting aspect of this long-suppressed draft is what it says about the Supreme Court as an agent of social change. The backlash to Brown v. Board of Education in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, might not surprise anyone who has read my colleague Gerald Rosenberg’s work. But the best argument for reading Go Set a Watchman is that you can better appreciate Richard McAdams’ fantastic New Rambler review of the book.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
One of the rare novels that will make you laugh out loud, The Imperfectionists is a hilarious (and sometimes insightful) look at an English-language newspaper in Rome as it (and its staff members) fall apart. I still giggle when I think about it.
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.
How Long Will South Africa Survive? In 1977, R.W. Johnson—South African native, Oxford don, sometime journalist—published a robust book foreseeing the demise of apartheid government in South Africa due to economic and moral pressure from the left and not from internal revolution. He was right, although it took 15 years for the regime to fall. Now, Johnson is retired from Oxford and back home with a similar argument by the same title, this time arguing that the ANC regime is risking the viability of the country as a unitary nation due to corruption and flagrant abuse of rule of law. Johnson is a lifetime contrarian, and his perspective on this critically important country is discerning. For those enticed by his powerful writing, he has also just published a keen account of his Oxford days, Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age.
I’ve been on something of an industrial-revolution-themed reading spree lately, and I recently read and enjoyed Shirley by Charlotte Brontë—not as gothic as her earlier Jane Eyre, not as broody as Emily’s Wuthering Heights, not as much debauchery as Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Just plenty of good old-fashioned nineteenth-century factory unrest (e.g., machine breaking), two pairs of star-crossed lovers, a Flemish mercantile house in decline, and a brace of compelling female heroines who were modeled on the author’s famous sisters.
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.
Morris, a classical archeologist at Stanford, offers a very readable contribution to what is by now a long line of “materialist” explanations of why our values are what they are, one that runs from the economist Karl Marx to the anthropologist Marvin Harris. Morris’s central thesis is that the way in which humans extract energy (and how much they extract) correlates powerfully with their systems of values. Morris is vague on the mechanisms by which energy sources produce moralities, but fascinating on the details both of energy sources and cross-cultural human values. The book should certainly give pause to anyone who thinks certain moral conclusions are obvious.
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley, is the most exciting nonfiction I have devoured in a long time. I found myself calling out in surprise and excitement as I was reading. It conveys the enthusiasm of science done on a small, resourceful scale, and the remarkable “decisions” of those swarms of honeybees. It is a beautiful book, and lyrically written. A more old-fashioned book I just finished is Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. The writing is remarkable, and her two subjects (Colonial Africa and early flight) are never boring.
I have been intrigued by books on the extent to which humans will suffer to survive. Endurance by Alfred Lansing, and In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, fall into that category (as does the now classic Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer). It puts the inconveniences of daily life into perspective. It also rekindles our—at least my—desire to have a bold goal in life. I also enjoy the intersection of science fiction and comedy. John Scalzi, a College grad, does this really well. But I’ve found others that are also quite adept at juggling the two genres, including Jim Bernheimer (Confessions of a D-List Supervillian) and Scott Meyer (Off to be the Wizard). If you like those books, they’re parts of series so there is more for you to read. I loved 1980s video games so I was excited to read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It took me back to my childhood and satisfied a dystopian science fiction fix. I’ll pretty much consume anything Neal Stephenson writes – his creativity and breadth of knowledge are awe-inspiring. Seveneves is no exception. Finally, I have been working on build a fellowship program (the International Innovation Corps) that tackles economic and social development projects in India and elsewhere. To learn more about how to build an effective organization from scratch, I’ve been reading books on startups and management. One that was widely recommended was The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. I think there are many others that are fantastic, but so far this has been the most useful of the books I have read.
I cannot help but recommend Behind the Beautiful Forevers despite the shortcomings described by my colleague Martha Nussbaum in a wonderfully incisive review for the Times Literary Supplement. If one were not aware that the book is a work of nonfiction, it would be impossible to guess. The characters are gorgeously drawn, and the story of poverty in a Mumbai slum is both compelling and heart-wrenching. The book is also meticulously sourced and documented, a refreshing advantage at a moment when several major ethnographic and social science works are being called into question. As Martha notes, the book offers little historic background and few solutions to the problems plaguing India’s underclass. But what the book lacks in economic analysis, it more than makes up for in literary merit.
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End
I have never read a book before that was at once so important to public policy and so enlightening to one’s personal life. There is a brilliant insider critique here of the medicalization of the end of life (Gawande is a doctor) and a provocative series of personal stories and deep questions about how one wants to live at the end. Most people wish to avoid the subject of mortality, myself included, but therein lies the reason we don’t plan for our frail years. If you or anyone you love might get old one day, you should read this book. I enjoyed some good novels this year, but I don’t want to dilute my recommendation (for whatever it’s worth!) with anything else.
The Expressive Powers of Law: Theory and Limits (2015) by Richard McAdams
My colleague’s masterful exploration of the law’s capacity to establish order and influence behavior without coercive force. It investigates the law’s ability to coordinate and convey information with examples ranging from automobile traffic to anti-smoking laws and even to the Constitution. Insightful and creative, the book deserves wide readership among law students especially.
Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West (2014) by Bryce Andrews is a memoir of a year spent working on a cattle ranch near Yellowstone. The evolution of the tenderfoot into a seasoned ranch hand makes for an ideal summer read. One of the modern West’s greatest controversies, the reintroduction of the wolf and its implications for cattle ranching, provides the narrative tension.
Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (2012) by Jonathan Levy, our colleague in the Department of History. It offers a history of risk by tracing the development of the “financial services industry” in America. More deeply, it contemplates how Americans have thought about risk, both its upside (the proper rewards for bearing it) and its downside (whether government should protect against it). It integrates history, economics, and law.
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014) by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
Students are occasionally chagrined by the temptation to highlight every line in a casebook. This is obviously not the best way to absorb information. But what is? The authors draw on cognitive science to identify the best ways to master a body of material. (Hint: quizzes.) The book should prompt students to rethink how they study and faculty to rethink how they teach.
The Door by Magda Szabo. This novel (translated from the Hungarian) is a beautiful and moving story about a relationship between two women, ostensibly a writer and her household employee, but who have a much more complex relationship than that would imply. The story emphasizes how well they know each other in certain respects, and yet how little they know each other in other respects—and how they are able to hurt one another as a result.
The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser. This is the true story of three siblings active in the French Resistance in WWII, written by the nephew of an American soldier who billeted with the siblings at war’s end and who grew up hearing his uncle’s stories about the family. The siblings (who lost their parents and another sibling in the camps, due in part to the resistance activities of the three siblings) had maintained silence about their activities for many decades, but then cooperated with the author to finally tell their story for their children and grandchildren. Harrowing and moving.
A Woman Loved by Andrei Makine. This is a novel about a Russian screenwriter who spends decades of his life trying to write about the life of Catherine the Great. He struggles with portraying the public tsarina versus the private woman, and as the Soviet Union becomes Russia, he struggles with how that changes what he can write and what will sell in this new world. Wonderful themes of public versus private, art versus real life, and artistic vision versus political reality.
The Double Helix is ostensibly a story of scientific discovery: how two ambitious scientists—James Watson and Francis Crick—raced to uncover DNA’s molecular structure. James Watson’s highly personal telling, however, also reveals the personalities and flaws of the celebrated scientists involved, as well as the importance of their highly collaborative efforts across various countries and institutions. There is much to learn and like about Watson’s rendering, including his lucid explanations of the successive scientific advances. Less likeable is his clearly sexist treatment of Rosalind Franklin, who was key to the discovery (among other things, given her work as an X-ray crystallographer), but is here uncharitably brushed aside. All in all, the book is a genre-defying work of non-fiction, subjective history, and a tale of academic intrigue.
Bernard Williams, Essays and Reviews 1959-2002. Bernard Williams, one of the major British philosophers of the twentieth century, died in June 2003, after a long struggle with multiple myeloma. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1999 and delivered the Dewey Lecture in our Law School in 2001. This, the final volume to be published from his estate, is a dazzling intellectual feast. it collects reviews and lectures produced over the entire span of his career, including characteristically illuminating discussions of all the major works of moral philosophy published in that time-span. Williams's quickness, insight, and wit are no surprise. More surprising, perhaps, is his rare capacity for intellectual empathy. Even more valuable than the reviews are the non-review essays, which address the role of philosophy, and the humanities more generally, in human life, making a powerful case for their indispensability.
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 Saul Bellow's semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Herzog. As the title suggests, it's the story of Moses Herzog, an unstable, self-critical, obsessive professor whose life has recently come apart thanks to his betrayal by his wife with his best friend. The book is unlike anything I've read before in its endless revisiting of the same cataclysmic events, its spirals of tortured but insightful self-scrutiny, and its elegant letters to famous figures that are forever unsent. Herzog is also an unforgettable character, at once an utter disaster in almost every respect and the bearer of a mind whose probing intelligence cannot be denied. Only after hundreds of pages of Sturm und Drang does Herzog finally attain a measure of calm. And by then, both he and the reader are ready for it.
Vivian Gornick, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life
I am reading it for a Greenberg Seminar on "Rebels: Courageous Woman Who Have Changed the World." It is a lively biography of an extraordinary woman. It focuses more on her internal psychology and personal life experiences than on the major historical events that shaped her life. It gives deep insight into how she became who she was, how she experienced the challenges of being a daring leader who spent her life challenging the conventional wisdom on just about every front.
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.
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.