Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, teaches such courses as “America’s Death Penalty” and “Secrets and Lies.” Here, he writes about the books on his figurative bedside table:

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I tend to prefer narrative nonfiction, some of it of the memoir variety, some not. I am drawn to the ways this genre imposes order on the often chaotic events it describes. I travel too much and find that order-out-of-chaos stuff a comforting companion. And, dare I admit it, my pleasure reading sometimes tends to bleed into things legal and political. What is pleasure, anyway?

I recently finished The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I was surprised a bit that I picked up the book; it didn’t seem to be close to either law or politics. But I was sold by a review which said the book is “an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior.” That line is quite on the mark. Sometimes burdened by too much medical terminology, the book nonetheless carried me along with its tales of failure and success, of false starts and startling discoveries. And there was just enough to chew on about the internal politics of the cancer research community and the political competition among disease communities.

I am currently reading Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. The book chronicles her schizophrenia. It is blurbed as inspiration for “family members or for anyone suffering from illness.” So far, I am not finding inspiration in it. If anything, I say it is more fear-inducing than anything else. Saks does a great job narrating the forms of recognition/misrecognition that she encountered as she came to understand her illness. There is great material on therapeutic interventions, some of which are maddening to read about, some of which fill me with admiration for the work of those who are committed to helping Saks.

I think I am in a losing battle with Jeff Shesol’s Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court. At more than 600 pages, it tells you everything you might want to know about this epic struggle of mid-20th-century American politics. FDR comes off as tone-deaf and much too smug in his views of the Court, not that I don’t think he was on the right side. Shesol has a gift for making FDR’s struggle vivid, if not always gripping. What is eerie about the book is its resonance with today’s struggle between a conservative-activist Court and proponents of enhanced federal power over economic matters. If anyone doubts the blurred line that exists between law and politics, this book should go a long way toward disabusing you of the idea that they exist in anything like hermetically sealed realms. And I think it might be the basis for a good film.