Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Strategies for Reading

“Despite surface similarities, reading . . . is not the same for all of us, and the differences deserve attention and respect. We are moved to read, and to choose what we read, by different questions and hopes, and the meaning of any particular text is different for each of us. For the meaning of text, its deepest meaning, is not in the text itself, nor even in the response of an ideal reader; it is in the place the text holds in our actual and individual lives, in the kind of life it stimulates and the kind of transformations it works there.”

—James Boyd White, Why I Write?, 53 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1021, 1022 (1996)

We begin with a pragmatic question: What are we to do with this story?

Read a story and ask yourself: What have I done with this story? “I’ve read the story, now what?” The skeptic would say of the story: “So what?”

Analog1: What am I to do when I read these law cases? It’s not all that clear when you begin, but there is a clear warning—you’ve got to read for a purpose. You can’t talk about a case in a way that will satisfy the teacher (who in this sense represents the legal community) until you learn to read in the kind of purpose-driven way that law school demands of you. You can read law cases all day long and still end up not knowing what you need to know.

Reading law cases is a skill and an art. Some are better at it than others. Some learn it quicker, some learn it in more depth but everyone learns it well enough to get by.

Analog2: Reading a VCR Manual (a still more instrumental kind of reading). If the VCR Manual lies to the right of the kind of reading we do in law case reading, then reading lawyer stories lies to the left. There is this matter of purpose, language, and way of proceeding.

Pragmatics of Reading: (or) What To Do With This Story?

Reading law, you learn that you are looking for a legal rule, that legal rules when stacked end-to-end constitute a legal doctrine, and that the rules/doctrine when applied in a new factual situation results in a legal outcome/judicial decision. (We also read the law to prepare a letter to a client explaining the law, or to write a memorandum to a partner in the firm explaining the law, or to write a letter to a lawyer who represents the opposing party in which we explain how the law supports a position we have taken.)

Law reading is extractive (finding the rule), linear (case 1 + case 2 + case 3)(rules come in batches)(the batch constitutes a legal doctrine), and practice (or instrumental)(you seek out rules, find the pattern expressed by the rules not for pleasure, or for intellectual stimulation, but to put the rules/patterns to use in order to solve a problem). Lawyers read to solve problems; our reading is instrumental in nature.

Now, you read a story and you ask: what am I to do? Am I supposed to extract something from it? Do stories, like law cases, have a bottom line? Is there anything like the black-letter law of a story? Can a story, like a case, be stated by way of its “syllabus points"?

Having read the story, you walk away from it with the question: what now?

And, if you're any kind of serious reader at all (knowledgeable, curious, intellectual), you’ll have some questions along the way. We might call this a process-oriented view of reading, and as it happens there is a reader-response school of literary theory that sees in just such questions the way to understand how we give meaning to the texts we read.

If we want to explore the pragmatics of reading, we might inquire: What kind of reading experiences have I had? How am I to use those experiences in dealing with this story? Is this a story in which I’m going to be required to draw on life experiences rather than my old reading strategies?

In these questions about ourselves as readers, we begin to explore the assumptions we bring to various kinds of reading. Carefully pursued, we may find that our assumptions lead us astray. Or we may find that our operating assumptions don’t get the job done.

Dealing with assumptions we bring to a reading: What kind of reader am I?

Law school and reading: What kind of reader has law school encouraged me to be?

Stance toward Literature: What is literature, and what does it mean to me? Have you have been a student of literature? Taken a literature course? Read literature on your own? Been taught that what you are reading is not literature?

Reading: What kind of reading do I do? What place does reading have in my life?

Burdens of Literary Reading:

There is a demand on and of the reader that the text or story be comprehended, understood (this has something to do with the “greatness” of literature and the fact that it expresses a “surplus” of meaning);

The demand that we know the author’s work (the “greatness” of the author);

The text as exemplar of a genre (that is, the fit of text/story to some category of literature, such as, the legal thriller genre);

We learn and apply “theories” by which texts/literature can be interpreted (which gives rise to the academic discipline–literary criticism);

Developing a sense of why a particular work deserves to be called literature (why it has become part of a literary canon–that is the list of books that literature teachers teach and assume that students should/must read); we might call this evaluating greatness; (note–we don’t have anything like a literary canon of legal fiction, although there might be something of the sort for a “law and literature” course; e.g., Melville’s Billy Budd, Dickens's Bleak House, Sophocles's Antigone). If there is anything remotely resembling a canon for lawyers and literature it would certainly include To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mapping out the relationship of author and reader in determining the meaning of the text.

Beyond the Burdens of Literary Reading:

Relieved of these burdens, what guides our reading? We might define what remains as tasks that are simple, personal, existential.

Simple: We are here dealing with the pragmatics of reading: What am I to do with this story? How can I put the story to use?

Personal: What does this story mean to me? What kind of demands did it make on me as a reader? How am I to understand my reactions, feelings, and thoughts about this story? What provocations and puzzlement did it provide? What habits and conventions of reading and thinking does the story threaten?

Existential: How does this story allow me to understand the life I’m living (or not living)? What new meaning or faith does this story make possible? What old ways of understanding does it confirm?

Fundamentals of Story Work

Stories Speak for Themselves. We might begin by simply reading the stories and seeing if the stories themselves suggest what we are to do in trying to understand how to put them to use.

Wolfgang Iser once observed that "something happens to us by way of the literary text." [Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response xi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980)]. J. Hillis Miller identifies this "something" as the "ethical moment in the act of reading." It is, says Miller,

a response to something, responsible to it, responsive to it, respectful of it. In any ethical moment there is an imperative, some "I must" or Ich kann nicht anders. I must do this. I cannot do otherwise. If the response is not one of necessity, grounded in some "must," if it is a freedom to do what one likes, for example to make a literary text mean what one likes, then it is not ethical . . . . [J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading 4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987)] [J. Hillis Miller]

Miller suggest that a literary text makes a demand on the reader, and we cannot fully reshape this demand by the workings or our own subjective reading. David Tracy makes the argument more directly: "[F]or certain expressions, form and matter are indissoluble.... [T]he disclosive and transformative power and meaning of the story are grasped only in and through the narrative itself." [David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism 275 (New York: Crossroad, 1981)]

What You Bring With You to the Story. What is it that we, as readers, with a long history of reading experiences, readers who happen to have set out to be lawyers, bring to these stories? "Readers need to stand somewhere before they pick up a book, and the nature of that 'somewhere,' I argue, significantly influences the ways in which they interpret and consequently evaluate texts." [Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation 2 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987)]. In what ways and by what strategies do we overread, underread, misread, and otherwise blind ourselves to what we find in the lawyer stories by way of assumptions we make about ourselves as readers and as students of law? In what ways do we claim particular stories as if they were our own, while other stories we ignore as if they did not invite us to know something about ourselves and the world?

"[L]ooking at readers' starting points can help us understand how interpretation comes about and what its implications are—not the implications of the particular texts at hand, but the implications of the very means we use as we go about making sense of them." [Id. at 3]

What kind of sophistication and sensibilities do you bring to your reading?

Each of us is a reader, and are more or less sophisticated in the reading we do. By sophisticated, I mean that we are able, as a matter of course, to examine the language used in different kinds of texts, figure out roughly the purpose of the text, who might use it, and how the text might be put to use. An educated reader asks, however implicitly: What is this text? Who produced it? What was its intended use? What is expected to happen when the text is used as intended?

A sophisticated reader knows how to get from text to meaning, that is, she knows how to read, interpret, and use what she reads. Sophisticated, cultivated reading is a matter of education of two kinds: the education we get from schooling, and the self-education we give ourselves as independent learners. Schools, with their organized forced marches through various fields of knowledge, expose us to texts, some interesting, others dull, some prosaic and mind-numbing, some imaginative and mysterious. The first text, however, is the text of personal experience, one's own life story, a story that schooling can help us understand. If, as John O'Neill argues, every "voyage begins at home in the world of familiar objects, among friends and everyday scenes," then we can expect our voyage as readers and writers to begin here as well. [John O'Neill, Making Sense Together: An Introduction to Wild Sociology 2 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974)]

A Cautionary Story: "A story in the Zen tradition of Buddhism offers [the following]: [A] smart and eager university professor seeks the teachings of an old Zen master. The Zen master offers him tea and upon the man's acceptance he pours the tea into the cup until it overflows. 'A mind that is already full cannot take in anything new,' the master explains. 'Like this cup, you are full of opinions and preconceptions.' In order to find happiness, he teaches, you must first empty the cup."

—Laurie A. Morin, Reflections on Teaching Law as Right Livelihood: Cultivating Ethics, Professionalism, and Commitment to Public Service from the Inside Out, 35 Tulsa L. J. 227, 251 (2000)

The Community Within Which Reading Takes Place. "As members of a particular culture and of a particular subculture or social group, we have absorbed concepts governing the nature of the literary arts, the satisfactions to be sought, the conventions to be observed, the qualities to be admired." [Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem 152 (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976)]. Consequently, we might ask: What does it mean to read lawyer fiction as part of one's education as a lawyer? How does reading lawyer stories in the company of fellow students affect your reading and understanding of lawyer stories?

When we read a text together, we join a community of readers and participate in the culture that reading makes possible.

[A] culture, real or imagined, is not a scheme or structure but a way of living, and, to be understood, it must be seen as offering a set of resources for speech and conduct: a set of things that is possible on certain occasions to say—by way, for example, of appeal, command, claim, or argument; and a set of things that it is possible to do, a set of moves with force and shape and meaning of their own. . . . [James Boyd White, When Words Lose Their Meaning 28 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)] [James Boyd White]

How is this cultural, communal activity of reading lawyer stories to be understood and used to further your education as a lawyer?

If we are indeed a community of readers, then it might be said that we are, in reading lawyer stories, in search of friends. [See generally, Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction 170-196 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)][Wayne C. Booth]. It is certainly true, in my own case, that some of my most involved friendships are with books. As one colleague notes, "There are authors and characters that I feel I know so well I regard them as friends, great-hearted people whom I get to know better each time I read. Seeing that they have written a new book or story is like receiving a dinner invitation: a chance to get to visit and know each other more." [Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, "You Gotta BE the Book": Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents 4 (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997)]

When we read lawyer stories, we find new friends, both among fellow readers and in fictional characters like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), in whom we find virtues to admire, and Will Barrett (in The Second Coming) who offers hope that new beginnings are possible. We may find that a novel or story itself becomes a worthy friend. As with all friends, there may be disagreements and conflict. Keep track of these disagreements with friends; learn from them.

The Ways You Read. We might try, in our discussion of the stories we read, to become more attentive to our reading. "[A] reader can only make sense of a text in the same way he or she makes sense of anything else in the world: by applying a series of strategies to simplify it—by highlighting, by making symbolic, and by otherwise patterning it." [Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation 19 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987)]

What is the relation between the kind of reading you are asked to do in law school and your reading of lawyer stories?

"Are the kinds of attention we bring to bear on literature, the skills we use to read it, different from those we exercise in reading other sorts of texts?" [Robert Alter, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age 23 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996)(1989)].

Is it possible to see reading as an interpretive enterprise that extends beyond literature, indeed, as a fundamental effort to understand and locate ourselves in the world? Is it possible to read your experience(s) in law school, to learn not only about how one learns to practice law but how one approaches other texts in life that must be read?

Robert Scholes, in Protocols of Reading, claims, as have others, that the world is a text and that we are each, in some fashion or another, readers of the various texts the world presents to us. This is the way Scholes presents the proposition:

In our ordinary speech acts we mention reading all the time. We say we read books and magazines and newspapers, to be sure, but we also speak of trying to read a person's expression or motives, and it is common, for instance, to speak of a quarterback or defensive captain on a football team trying to read the alignment opposing him. We read music, of course, and other forms of nonverbal notation, such as maps and choreography. Astrologers claim to read the stars—which astronomers also read, but according to a different code. We do not, in ordinary parlance, say that we read films or television (we "view" or "watch" them), though semioticians read—or say they read—such texts all the time. I shall be making—and trying to justify, here—the semiotic assumption that all the world's a text. . . . [Robert Scholes, Protocols of Reading 1-2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)] [Robert Scholes]

James Boyd White makes a similar claim:

One response to the world is to make a text about it, a reorganization of its resources of meaning tentatively achieved in a relation, newly constituted, between reader and writer. This is a way of acting in the world and on the world by using the language of the world. . . . Other activities are also texts in this sense, including the conversations that take place among us, at home or at the office or on the street, whenever we talk about what matters to us. We struggle to make our words work as we wish, to redefine them to meet our needs, and in doing this we remake, in ways however small, our language and our world.

[James Boyd White, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)]

If we are located in a world of texts, texts we inherit and texts we produce, texts we read and texts we live, then it will be our reading of these texts, our receptivity to them and our rebellion against them, our interpretations and misunderstandings of them, that will be of central importance.

Reading stories with others, we see that different readers have different strategies for reading. We do not read, interpret, and criticize stories in the same way, indeed, some readers are quite oblivious to the need for a story to be interpreted and explored from a critical perspective.

Reading stories with others, we often sense that a story has been misread, and with the help of other readers, we might become more attentive to ways we read and misread the texts we are given to interpret and the stories we are trying to live.

Reading Reflects Character. In reading fiction, we direct our attention to the character(s) we find in stories and reading for reflective purposes, to our own character. Lawyers become characters in contemporary fiction because we are cast as actors in the great dramas and social upheavals of our time. While law students may sometimes view themselves as social plumbers and mechanics, the view seems more convenient than accurate. There is something in the culture, the way of legal talking and legal thinking, that routinizes the lawyer role and legal persona, while at the same time individual lawyers attempt to give the role a distinctive look. The distinctive element is always in tension with the legal persona, the mask that identifies an individual to the world as a lawyer. [persona] [legal persona]

Lawyers indeed seem to have a character shaped by the world of law work. In the mix of predisposition, legal education and anticipation of what lies ahead, students begin to think and talk like lawyers. There is, I contend, a psychological dimension to personality and character one develops in a profession like law.

There are rites of passage that must be endured before one can claim to be a lawyer. Undergoing these rites of passage, we immerse ourselves in an ethos and an ethic which affects attitudes and philosophies; simply put, we begin to sound and look like lawyers.

If it is possible that the way we read has a direct bearing on the kind of lawyers we become, we might want to study this relationship between reading and character, between reading and the person we hold ourselves out to be. How does your reading mark you as a particular kind of person, as a legal character? Or, in contrast, do you see reading law and reading literature as the use of a tool that says nothing of significance about you as a person?

When teachers ask their students to learn, and to learn by reading, to learn by grappling with strange new texts, texts that seem to have no bearing on their immediate lives, they ask them to have a certain kind of character. Good teachers, when they ask us to read, are asking us to live a particular kind of life, to develop an openness to text that allows for the possibility that the text may change our thinking about what to do, and how to live, and who to be. The character demanded of us by the good teacher depends on an assumption—reading is a way to better understand character, a way to live with character.

Teachers are afraid that students who have no interest beyond their own immediate life and chosen goals will lead an impoverished, troubled, life. Teachers believe in their heart, it is this openness to the new, to Other, to experiences beyond those made possible for us at home, with friends, and a constant diet of television, that will make us more sensible, critical, and adaptable, more concerned about the good life and the various ways in which it can be lived.

Stories Being Told. We interpret what we find in lawyer stories based on the stories we know from everyday life, stories we heard as children, stories which bring us pleasure, stories that create a tinge of fear, stories of the forbidden. In reading a story, interpretation begins when we say (without saying at all):

This is a story I am reading. I know something about stories. I like stories, pay more attention when there are stories being told in contrast to being served an all too heavy diet of theory or abstractions. I've been figuring out the kinds of stories that surround me all my life. I know, basically, that some stories are intriguing while others are boring, some are inviting while others are strange and inscrutable, some are frightening and inviting, some are so frightening they must be denied. I know how I react to stories; they seem always to produce an emotional response. I am more or less open, more or less closed to the stories I'm offered.

We read stories to sharpen the eye and ear for complexity, paradox, and mystery. Henry Miller made the point this way: "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world in itself." [Thomas H. Moore (ed.), Henry Miller on Writing 37 (New York: New Directions, 1964)]. We need to become more watchful of the stories lived around us, and to study the resources available for dealing with these stories. Every law student carries with her a repertoire of stories, some of which have been taken up unconsciously, others chosen and consciously groomed. Sometimes stories seduce us, or invade us with the force of an occupying army. Still other stories we resist, or build great walls around so we can we shield ourselves from them. With some stories, there is nothing to do but puzzle over them.

Each of us, as reader and maker of texts, establish a personal and social relationship with the stories our culture makes most readily accessible. But some of us will not be content with the ready stock of conventional stories presented to us. We will attempt to produce our own texts and tell our own stories. "I produce texts, therefore I am, and to some extent I am the texts that I produce." [Robert Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982)]. In turning to lawyer fiction, we may find something therapeutic, something that will help us make the connection between our cover stories, our untold stories, and the stories we find most puzzling.

Themes and Motifs That Carry from Story to Story. In talking about the stories we read in the Lawyers and Literature course, we sometimes look for patterns or motifs that will begin to help us make sense of the stories as a collective whole. Consider the theme of identity, in particular one's identity as a lawyer. Northrop Frye prefaces a comment on the more general theme of identity with Yeats's poem "Sailing to Byzantium":

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Frye goes on to observe: "This story of the loss and regaining of identity is, I think the framework of all literature." [Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination 54-55 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970)] [Northrop Frye]


"[T]he most interesting discussions in literature class have to do with how readers work, how they bring to life the works we read together, how they arrive at and express their versions of the work—their interpretations and criticisms. My attention as a teacher has come to focus on the ways in which students and I myself construct texts as experiences we can talk about, write about, and share with others." [Benjamin DeMott, Close Imagining: An Introduction to Literature viii (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988)]


When we travel, we use several different strategies for locating ourselves and learning our way about. One way we keep our bearings is to make use of maps, maps drawn by others and those we create for ourselves as we wander about and observe prominent features along the routes we travel. We use maps to get from a place that we know, to a place that is unfamiliar and then back home. The maps we use are those offered to us, those we carry around with us in our heads, and those we make for use along the way.

In reading law, you are given a map—the case brief—and you are instructed to read judicial opinions using this map. You are advised to locate your reading using this map. You are told directly where you are going when you read judicial opinions and instructed what prominent features of the case opinion—facts, issue, analysis, ruling—are of importance in your reading. In the persistent use of this "brief-the-case" map, you become a student of law who knows how to read for a limited purpose, with a clearly defined goal. Or so it would seem.

The virtue of reading judicial opinions using the case brief map is clarity. The danger in this instrumental, programmed reading is that it can becoming deadly boring. Intellectually, you may find that the map that serves your instrumental needs as a student taking a test isn't really going to serve you in the more complex task of becoming a good lawyer. Most students learn early on how limited their knowledge of law is when they read a semester's collection of case briefs. The anxiety in studying for a law school examination comes not only from the sheer volume of the facts and law the student must learn, but the dawning realization that the map (case brief) is simply not enough. To master legal study the student must pull it all together, produce a synthesis that lies off the case brief map.

When you reduce a case to its structural components, you have gained an important way of seeing the case, but in the process you may have lost something as well. In this sense, a judicial opinion is like a poem, when it is reduced to its lowest common denominator—the rule of law—or in the case of a poem to a descriptive statement as to what it is or what it means, you may find you have drained them, the law and the poem, as well as yourself, of their energy and your energy. Every translation has its cost.

There are other ways to read. For example, when we read a novel, at least when we do without the guidance of a teacher, we don't think much about how we are reading and we don't mind reading without a map. Indeed, it is tempting to say that to read a novel, you don't need a map at all. If your concern is pleasure, or falling asleep at the end of a tiring day, then it's hard to see much use for a map. Of course, this implies that the pleasure we get from reading does not depend upon an elaborate map.

We come to think of our reading, the way we think of other aspects of our lives, as compartmentalized. We read for pleasure, and we read what teachers demand that we read. Reading, like work and play, is differentiated by space and purpose. We read differently, or imagine we do, when we read novels and when we read law. Novels and law cases are read for different purposes and, one assumes, with different results.

Is there a way to make use of this imaginal space, this chasm, between reading novels for pleasure and reading judicial opinions to derive legal doctrine and rules of law? Is there some middle ground of reading, a strategy for reading that is not simply hedonistic—where we eschew the use of reading maps—and the approved, limited purpose reading and maps that law teachers present their students? Reading, in this middle ground, would be neither free, nor determined; it would offer neither unbounded pleasure or the immediate instrumental pay off that comes when we read law to find rules to solve legal issues.

I don't have a name for this middle ground or a strategy to teach it. I suspect that such a way of reading exists, and that we already make use of it. I am simply trying to approximate it, to see if I can make more explicit what we do when we read well. I trust that the preliminary and groping quality of the remarks that follow can be explained by the exploratory nature of the enterprise.

The middle-way strategy for reading begins by viewing the text as a puzzle, or a part of a mystery; the text is read for its clues. Reading as puzzle or mystery doesn't forego the idea that we have maps; it does encourage us to become more conscious of them.

One puzzle or mystery our reading takes up is this question: What has gone wrong with the world? The question, as is so often the case, contains an assumption: Something is wrong with the world and we need to know what it might be. What would happen if you read with this question and assumption foremost in mind: Something has gone wrong. What is it? How did it happen?

If you are to read with the "something has gone wrong" assumption, you'll need to ask some questions: (1) how can your reading bolster and legitimize the assumption? (2) if your assumption is like an investment you'll need to watch over it and monitor whether it's paying off, or you need to put your assumption capital in a different investment; (3) whether the assumption allows you to better understand what is going on around you and suggest how to respond to it; and (4) whether the assumption allows you to better engage others and their assumptions.

If you read with the "something has gone wrong" with the world assumption you read with what might be called a critical perspective. To understand the critical perspective it might be contrasted with the perspective of the conformist. In life, and in reading, there are critics and there are conformists. The critic assumes that a text was produced out of a sense of uneasiness, a notion that we have gone astray, that something is not right, that a better bigger truth can be known. The text may call for a corrective turn or reform. It may claim that our present assumptions have us doing one thing when we should do another, that we should re-think or re-conceptualize something, to re-examine a prevailing logic. The text may produce a plea for understanding, a cry that emanates from an illness or suffering, a lament for what has been lost, forgotten, misunderstood, devalued, misfigured.

The point here can be stated boldly: The text, when read critically, points to the world's wrongness. An author may not, for a variety of reasons, identify herself as a critic. Some critics adopt disguises when they write. Depending on who you are and where you are, writing without disguise can be dangerous. Still other critics proudly proclaim their status as critics. They fly the critical flag, sing the anthem of criticism, practice its methodologies, and feel a kinship with their fellow critics. Critics need company; it's a lonely life.


Walter Kaufmann, in The Future of the Humanities (New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1977) presents four approaches to reading:

Exegetical Reading: Kaufmann calls the first approach to reading exegetical. "The readers' attitude toward the author can be summed up briefly in the words: We don't know and he does." [48] Exegetical reading endows the text with authority. [exegesis - Wikipedia]

Dogmatic Reading: The second way of reading, Kaufmann calls dogmatic: "We know and he doesn't." [55]. It has, in Kaufmann's view, three variants: Had the author known X, he would not have said what he did. Had he possessed our superior techniques, he would not have said what he did. The author wasn't altogether hopeless and at points came close to what we ourselves believe or find true. [56-57] [dogma - Wikipedia]

Agnostic Reading: Kaufmann labels the third way of reading agnostic. Agnostic reading can "be summed up briefly as saying in effect: We don't know and suspend judgment about truth." [57-58]. "Truth is out of the picture, and the reader's concern is with something else." [58]. There are three variations of this approach to reading: the antiquarian (preference for the old and the rare); aesthetic (concerned with beauty and style); and the microscopic (preference for the part rather than the whole). [Id.] [agnosticism - Wikipedia]

Dialectical Reading: Kaufmann calls the fourth way of reading dialectical. "We [readers] don't know everything and he [the author] doesn't; but we have some intelligence and he does; and we shall try to transcend some errors by engaging in a common quest, confronting the voice of the text as a You." [59]. This Socratic approach to the text "enlist[s] the aid of the text" to examine our own perspectives and purposes. [61]. "The dialectical reader seeks vantage points outside the various consensuses by which he has been conditioned. The text is to help him to liberate himself." [Id.]. The dialectical reader "is not looking for an authority with whom he can agree but rather for alternative points of view that allow him to reflect critically on his own views. Reading in this way enables him to become conscious of his own preconceptions of the prejudices of the groups to which he belongs." [61] [dialectic - Wikipedia] [Walter Kaufmann]

Does law school place more emphasis on one or another of the approaches to reading that Kaufmann describes?

Is it possible that reading lawyer fiction might require different strategies for reading than those emphasized in traditional law school courses?


"There I sat . . . happy as could be, master of Belle Isle, the loveliest house on the River Road, gentleman and even a bit of a scholar (Civil War, of course), married to a beautiful rich loving (I thought) wife, and father (I thought) to a lovely little girl; a moderate reader, moderate liberal, moderate drinker (I thought), moderate music lover, moderate hunter and fisherman, and past president of the United Way. I moderately opposed segregation. I was moderately happy. At least at the moment I was happy, but not for the reasons given above. The reason I was happy was that I was reading for perhaps the fourth or fifth time a Raymond Chandler novel. It gave me pleasure (no, I'll put it more strongly: it didn't just give me pleasure, it was the only way I could stand my life) to sit there in old gold green Louisiana under the levee and read, not about General Beauregard, but about Philip Marlowe taking a bottle out of his desk drawer in his crummy office in seedy Los Angeles in 1933 and drinking along and all those from-nowhere people living in stucco bungalows perched in Laurel Canyon. the only way I could stand my life in Louisiana, where I had everything, was to read about crummy lonesome Los Angeles in the 1930's. Maybe that should have told me something. If I was happy, it was an odd sort of happiness." [Walker Percy, Lancelot 24-25 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977)] [Walker Percy]


We are each, I suspect, in our own way, in need of clarity (some have more need for it than others). Clarity is indeed a virtue, one that law schools try to teach, a virtue lawyers find necessary in their work.

Every profession makes clarity a virtue. Clarity, the seeing of things, with a minimum of distortion, using the best available evidence, helps us sort through muddled and convoluted problems. Clarity is a skill. Clients are willing to pay to get the skill deployed on their behalf. You will need, as a student of law and as a lawyer, as much clarity as you can muster.

There are instances in which the need for clarity can get in the way of common sense, situations, times, and instances, in which clarity is not to be had. If you hold clarity to be an important virtue, seeking it and practicing it, you may get so familiar with it that you devise a clarity that fulfills your needs more than it honestly represents the situation you are in. Be forewarned that clarity is not always a virtue.


Recommend Reading (about the Art & Pleasures of Reading)

Geoffrey O'Brien, The Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996)

Robertson Davies, Reading and Writing (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993) (1992)

Geoffrey O'Brien | Lynne Sharon Schwartz | Robertson Davies


Close Reading

Close Reading
adapted from a university writing program handout

Close Reading a Text
Purdue University

Close Reading of a Literary Passage
L. Kip Wheeler, English Department, Carson-Newman University

Close Reading

Engaged Reading

The Three Pillars of Literary Fiction: Engagement, Entertainment, Enlightenment
William H. Coles, Editor's Opinion Blog

Social Reading and Literary Engagement
Douglas Vipond, Russell A. Hunt & Lynwood C. Wheeler, Reading Research
and Instruction

Critical Reading

Critical Reading: A Guide
John Lye, a guide designed for students

Fundamentals of Critical Reading
Daniel J. Kurland,

Critical Reading Strategies
Salisbury University Counseling Center

Critical Reading

Literary Reading

Forms of Self-Implication in Literary Reading
Don Kuiken, David S. Miall & Shelley Sikora, Poetics Today

On Reading

Pragmatic and Cognitive Dimensions of Literary Reading
Douglas Vipond & Russell A. Hunt, Poetics

How to Read Literature

On Critical Thinking
(with applications to Critical Writing)

Archaeology of Criticism
James R. Elkins

Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking?
Daniel J. Kurland,


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