Review of “Law Lit: From Atticus Finch to The Practice” edited by Thane Rosenbaum

This book, subtitled “A Collection of Great Writing About the Law” is a compendium of classic depictions of the legal system in action.

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Selections include passages from works such as Kafka’s The Trial, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Richard Wright’s Native Son, David Mamet’s The Verdict, J’accuse by Emile Zola, and much more, including of course, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

The excerpts are grouped into nine parts: The Law Elevated; Lawless Law; The Law and Liberty; Law Made Low; The Law Laborious (of course you will find Scott Turow’s One L in this section, but you will also find a piece from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland); The Lawyer As Lout; The Law and the Loophole; Layman’s Law (e.g., A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr); and The Law and Longing.

Rosenbaum observes, much as Robert Cover famously did (Cover, Robert M., “Violence and the Word,” Yale L.J. 95:1601, 1986) that it is in the courtroom where one form of violence is substituted for another. In some rather deft writing of his own, Rosenbaum states in his Introduction:

The legal system offers a bloodless way of moving the fight from the streets to wood-paneled, marble-walled arenas where the pounding of a gavel is presumed to soften the blow. And once inside the courtroom, everyone is aroused by the spectacle of warring combatants dressed in coats of Armani, arguing subtle points, disputing facts, badgering witnesses, distorting truths, doing whatever it takes to win.”

People are obsessed with these legal spectacles, he avers:

While many have a poor opinion of lawyers and the legal profession, these same people can’t seem to get enough of the law when it comes to their consumption of culture.”

And when the law doesn’t feel moral or just, Rosenbaum contends, this is where the artist enters, at “the intersection between the longing for law and the consequences of law.” (Yet another sign of Cover’s influence, with his seminal article “Nomos and Narrative” on the ways in which law serves as a bridge between what is and what ought to be. (Cover, Robert M., “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term — Foreword: Nomos and Narrative” 97 Harv. L. Rev 4, 1983.)

Lawyers make good fictional characters, Rosenbaum notes. And law literature plumbs the depth of human experience that is generally omitted from legal opinions. Rosenbaum endeavors to fill that gap with this very fine selection of the best of legal literature. In what other kind of anthology would you find represented the work of Margaret Atwood, Langston Hughes, Charles Dickens, and Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues”) all in the same place?

Evaluation: There is something in here for everyone, whether you are a legal professional or you just love great writing. The author does a fine job preceding each selection with sufficient background to enable you to appreciate the upcoming passage.

Published by The New Press, 2007

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