Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Exercise 1-1 | What Kind of Reader Are You?

In legal education, we ask you to master the skill of reading and understanding judicial opinions so that you can put these legal texts to use. Your skill in reading judicial opinions is a focal point of legal education. The successes and failures that you have had as a student are related, at least in terms of your law school grades, in large measure to your skills in reading judicial opinions.

What kind of reader have you become in law school? Or, put differently, how has the quality of your skills as a reader been effected by the focus of your reading on judicial opinions? In what ways has law school made you a better reader? (And what does it mean to become a better reader?) In what ways has legal education failed you as a reader?

"Good readers make good lawyers." Does your law school experience support this proposition? What reservations do you have about the premise?

Which of the following claims and assertions about reading most accurately describes your understanding of yourself as a reader? Which of the following claims do you find most problematic?

"Reading itself is extraordinarily hard work. It does not occur all that often. Clearheaded reflection on what really happens in an act of reading is even more difficult and rare." [J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading 3-4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987)]

 "I would say of any literary text that it defines an ideal reader whom it asks its audience to become . . . . In this view, the reading of a text is guided by two central questions: first, what possibilities for perception and response, for judgment and feeling, does this text seek to realize in me? Second, what do I think of such a project? In other words, as the reader works through a text he is always asking who the 'ideal reader' of this text is, and deciding whether he wishes to become such a one, even for a moment." [James Boyd White, Law as Language: Reading Law and Reading Literature, 60 Tex. L. Rev. 415, 429-430 (1982)

"[W]e should read in a certain way. We should, in fact, read so as to get the most out of each experience of reading. . . . [W]e should make the most of our reading just as we should make the most of our lives. . . . Our skill, our learning, and our commitment to the text will determine, for each of us, the kind of experience that text provides. Learning to read books—or pictures, or films—is not just a matter of acquiring information from texts, it is a matter of learning to read and write the texts of our lives." [Robert Scholes, Protocols of Reading 19 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)]

"Students are formed by the reading they do, by the views of self and world such reading presents." [Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known 19 (New York: Harper & Row, 1983)] 

Reflect, for a moment, on how you imagine yourself as a reader (or, on what I hope is the unlikely case, that you do not see yourself as a reader at all). Try to write a few paragraphs, better still, several pages, where you talk about yourself as a reader.


How We Read: Some of us read little beyond what we are required to read. We read for limited purposes, as means to other ends. Others read as a matter of habit. Reading is a diversion, something else we do without reflection. Even nonreaders, at times, find themselves searching out books to accomplish some purpose or understand an experience. They do so without considering themselves as readers. Reading is, again, a means to get something done, or to know how to deal with a particular immediate experience.

Some of us read because we see reading as essential to the life-long effort to think more coherently about the lives we try to live, and about the lives we see being lived by others.

Reductive Reading: Consider the kind of reading we do when we are in the grips of what Robert Coles calls "narrow reductionism." In law we might call it legalism, positivism, instrumentalism, the "bad man" theory of law, the traditional concept of advocacy that holds the lawyer to be a hired-gun, a professional morality that makes zealous advocacy the penultimate professional virtue. It may be true that every discipline and profession, of necessity, has reductive tendencies. But reductionism can be overdetermined and dysfunctional. What begins as necessary and inevitable becomes an overextended premise of professional life—e.g., making zealous advocacy a singular virtue—that sets itself up as ruler of all impulses, exercising a veto over expressions of ideals, becoming a constant filter of vision that narrows the frame of reference to legal relevance.

Reductionism is a contrary impulse and an enemy of Paul Tillich's insistence on "the mystery of things, the strange and fateful 'moments' . . . that make such a difference in our lives." A reductionist approach to lawyering may smooth out the highs and lows, positing that facts readily available mixed with the mortar of assumptions is all we need to manage and solve the problem at hand. A reductive approach to law leaves out mystery, the strange, the fateful. Legalism prompts the self-assured belief that legal method, legal reasoning, and legal rules are all of Law and all it needs to be. Legalism whispers in our ear: I am the foundation, walls, and roof of your House, I am the Law, I am the Shelter in the Storm.

The Good Reader: "In general, good readers enter the reading process with certain assumptions: that what they read will be connected into a coherent whole, that it will contain 'layers of meaning,' that the ideas being read are connected to other ideas they have previously encountered and are relevant to them personally. Before they begin, good readers inspect what they are to read, noting such aspects as the title, author, and chapters; then they place this reading into a category. As they read, they ask questions, note interesting features of the text, and draw on their experience as a reader. Additionally, they attend to author/reader relationships, monitor their reading processes, evaluate the significance of what they are reading, rethink past decisions, and hypothesize alternative interpretations. These processes used by good readers imply that much 'reading' time is spent in reflection . . . ." [Sally Rings, The Role of Computer Technology in Teaching Critical Reading {website}]



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