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Posts Tagged ‘Western Canon’

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

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Review of “Teaching Law and Literature”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Fiction, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on April 24, 2012 at 8:33 am

Allen Mendenhall

Teaching Law and Literature.  Austin Sarat, Cathrine O. Frank, and Matthew Anderson, eds.  New York: Modern Language Association, 2011.  vii + 507 pp.  $25, paper.

What began as a coordinated, idiosyncratic project in American and British law schools has become a common component of curricula in English departments across the globe.  Law and literature as a subject and as a movement has gained purchase over the last three decades.  Inaugurated in 1973 with the publication of James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination, which highlighted, among other things, the affinities between legal and literary rhetoric, law and literature has splintered into so many narrowed foci that today it is just as common to see courses like “Law in Late 19th Century American Literature” as it once was to see courses called, quite simply and broadly, “Law and Literature.”

To celebrate and explain this movement, The Modern Language Association (MLA) has released Teaching Law and Literature, an edition with forty-one essays by some of the most prominent scholars in the field, including none other than White himself.  Although law and literature has enjoyed ample funding and has become the subject of an increasing number of journals and conferences, not enough work has been done on the pedagogical aspects of the discipline.  Put another way, the discipline has yet adequately to address the question of how professors ought to teach the interplay of law and literature to students.

That is a gap that this book seeks to fill.  According to editors Austin Sarat, Cathrine O. Frank, and Matthew Anderson, Teaching Law and Literature  “provides a resource for teachers interested in learning about the field of law and literature and how to bring its insights to bear in their classrooms, both in the liberal arts and in law schools.”  Despite that stated goal, the book is weighted toward undergraduate education, and the editors admit as much in their introduction.

At a time when American law schools are under fire for admissions scandals and fabricated data, professors of law and literature—and law professors interested in humanistic and jurisprudential approaches to law teaching—would do well to turn their attention to undergraduates.  When budget cuts and faculty purging befall the legal academy, as they likely will, law and literature (and its various offshoots) will be the first curricular elective to suffer.  A discipline whose proponents struggle to articulate its purpose—will a course in law and literature help law students to pass a bar exam or to become better lawyers?—may not survive the institutional scrutiny of deans, administrators, and alumni associations.

Yet it is the urgent quest for validation that makes law and literature such an important subject.  At its core, law and literature is about grand questions: Why study literature at all?  What use do novels, plays, poems, and the like have for the general public and for the practical, workaday world in which lawyers serve a necessary function?  Might the recurring themes of justice, fairness, and equality expressed in canonized texts from disparate cultures and communities point to something recognizable and distinctive in the human condition?  And are there paralyzing limits to specialized knowledge of periods and genres when so many law and literature scholars, working out of different traditions and trained in supposedly autonomous disciplines, arrive at the same or similar generalizations regarding human experience?

One such generalization, interestingly enough, is that complicated relationships between people—whether based in race, gender, class, or whatever—ought to be understood in terms of ambiguity and contingency rather than certainty and absolutes, and that simple answers will hardly ever suffice to illuminate the nuances and contradictions of any given phenomenon, especially law.  That law is too often reduced to blackletter, blanket rules is not lost to writers of imaginative literature, who, many of them, have used law and legal institutions to enable critiques and explorations of complex social and philosophical problems.

It is little wonder, in light of the compatibility between literary and legal rhetoric or hermeneutics, that a Maryland appellate judge recently wrote in his concurrence that “[t]his case is E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India all over again.  Something happened up there at the Marabar Caves.  Was it an attempted rape?  Was it some form of hysteria triggered by strongly ambivalent emotions imploding violently in a dark and isolated catacomb?  Or was it some unmappable combination of the two as moods and signals shifted diametrically in mid-passage?  The outside world will never know.”  Here is a judge employing a work of literature to demonstrate a point about the limitations of human knowledge.  Law provides topoi in countless works of literature, and works of literature, as this judge apparently recognizes, can supply context and profundity to the deforming routines and desensitizing rituals of everyday law practice.  Without following the judge through to the end of his reasoning, one can sense in his lines a stark awareness of the incapacity of human faculties and hence the perspectival nature of what the philosophers call “justice.” Read the rest of this entry »

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