Spinning Straw into Gold

LawBooks.jpgI was initially attracted to the law because I thought that the books looked cool. My father is an art historian and my mother was an adjunct English professor before she became a tech writer. My grandfathers were a rancher and a farmer respectively. I did not come from a legal background. Nevertheless, my first year of college I wrote a paper that required that I venture into the law library, and I was entranced by the look and feel of old copies of the U.S. Reports.

There was something about the heavy mustiness of the books, the calfskin bindings, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century type faces that captured my imagination. The books just looked like they contained “lore” and “learning.” One of the great pleasures of my clerkship was going through my judge’s personal collection of rare legal books: a first edition of Blackstone, Yearbooks printed in the 17th and 16th centuries, a Restoration-era printing of the record in Charles I’s trial, and so on.


My wife finds my fascination on this point incomprehensible. She has poked about in some of my law books and finds the disputes about assumpsits, pendant jurisdiction, or legal hermeneutics that I love unspeakably dry. As she rightly points out, her books have pictures of dismembered cadavers and diagrams of the swallowing mechanism. Much more interesting.

Nevertheless, to me there is a kind of beauty in seeing how the law weaves the pedestrian disputes of life into a fabric ultimately concerned with power, justice, and the good society. Jurisprudence spins the straw of the everyday into the gold of applied philosophy and political economy. No mean feat, that.

It seems to me that spinning straw into gold is a great deal of what lawyers – practical and academic – do. You take a pile of undistinguished facts and turn it into a story about wrong and injustice, the distribution of political power, the advance of prosperity, or so on. Professors – if they are good – can take the mundane details of their subjects and spin connections to basic themes about human action and the good society. Apart from its intrinsic value, one of the things that makes the law fascinating for me is the sheer intellectual challenge of taking the boring or the pedestrian and making it interesting.

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11 Responses

  1. Kaimi says:

    Well, we lawyers certainly take straw and turn it into . . . something.

    Whether your own straw-to-gold metaphor is the most appropriate metaphor, or whether a more apt description might discuss the start-to-finish transformation that horses and cattle commonly effect on straw — well, it’s possible that reasonable minds might differ on the outcome of that particular question.

  2. Hedgehog says:

    My grandmother was the County Law Librarian (and the Draft Board) in the 50’s and 60’s. She’d occasionally take me to work with her and pay me (a quarter or two) to update the pocket parts in all those glorious volumes. As an L1 as the rest of my class struggled with the vagaried Am Jur and Fed 2nd and Pac Rep I was at home – they were old friends from my childhood. And while I still had to learn all the “magic words”, that familiarity stood me in good stead.

  3. Ah, the beauty of old books . . . definitely, there’s something wonderful and irreplaceable about the physical book. Part of me loves the fact that now we can access all the cases electronically, but part of me laments the fact that law books may soon be entirely replaced by electrons. The computer doesn’t capture the magic of a set of the U.S. Reports or F.3d. I wonder how many growing up today will speak fondly of the mustiness of Westlaw or the leather of Lexis. Alas.

  4. Simon says:

    It’s true that being able to search word-by-word online is very helpful, but I agree with the previous posters, that there is something irreplacable about holding this material in your hands, or looking at a wall of books (Daniel’s polite euphemism about a “set” of U.S. reports – which, these days, arrives in the mail in its own handy presentation wall o’ shelves) and realizing what you’re looking at. As Giles says, in defense of books over computers, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “knowledge should be smelly!”

  5. Nate Oman says:

    “As Giles says, in defense of books over computers, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “knowledge should be smelly!””

    Indeed. One of the wisest lines in a show filled with wise lines.

  6. The Smell of Law in the Morning

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    Folks here at concurringopinions have been talking a lot about books recently–Nate Oman’s had posts on the appeal of law books (particularly old ones) and law reviews and Dan Solove’s posted about the open library. I find student-edited law…

  9. History of the Book

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  10. anwar says:

    I am poor person, I need some law books for knowledge about humain rights.

  11. Lou Lower says:

    All very touching and poetic, but I am faced with the tangible problem of finding a place or market for hundreds, possibly thousands of law books from the sequential law practices of my father and brother. In the digital age, there seems to be no market or place for those beautiful, evocative law books. Anyone have experience or suggestions to address my problem? Indiana location.