magnify
Home Editorials Christmas Reading? Christmas Gifts? Some Suggestions from the Editor-in-Chief

Christmas Reading? Christmas Gifts? Some Suggestions from the Editor-in-Chief

Published on December 19, 2014        Author: 

The following is not a ’10 Best Books Published in 2014’. Looking back at the books (excluding novels) I read (and in some cases re-read) this year I have picked those which created that ‘everyone should read this book’ urge that we all experience from time to time. The selection is of course entirely subjective, but rigorous in one sense: knowing how precious reading time is, involving serious opportunity costs, I put on the list only those titles where I felt that I would not run the risk that someone would write to me and say: you wasted my time.

The order of books on the list is arbitrary.

Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013

Of Maimonides it has been said endlessly that from [the great Biblical] Moses to Moses [Maimonides] no one has arisen as Moses. (Trust me, it sounds a lot better in pithy Hebrew – Momoshe ad Moshe Lo Kam KeMoshe). A son of Cordoba (1138) he spent the central part of his life in Cairo where he died in 1204 and was then buried in Tiberius. Renaissance Man (long before the Renaissance) he was and remains one of the greatest Jewish teachers, scholars, legal decisors, philosophers (in the Aristotelian tradition) and physicians. His codification of Jewish Law has remained normative till this day and his Guide to the Perplexed is part of the canon of medieval philosophy and is hugely rewarding to anyone today (all too few, alas) interested in virtue theory. The story of his life, an exile from Caliphate Andalusia and ending as physician to the Crown of Egypt, is not only riveting but offers a window to a world of, inter alia, Islamic glory, which is not often known beyond a small circle of scholars. 

Enter another Moses, Moshe Halbertal, the author, inter alia, of a recent study of Maimonides. I read the Hebrew original some years ago but reread the English translation this year. It is a crowded corner and a difficult choice, but with no hesitation I would crown him the most significant and interesting Jewish scholar and intellectual of our times. He, too, is a renaissance man – philosopher, historian, profound jurisprude whose range is vast, making regular forays into the public space with thought-provoking, mind-shifting essays on contemporary issues. Google, pick out any, and hold your breath.

The great virtue of his book on Maimonides is that both specialist and novice will be drawn into the text to their respective profit, enlightenment and edification. To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, you get two-for-one: an insight into the profound worlds of Moses Maimonides and Moses Halbertal.

Robert Howse, Leo Strauss, Man of Peace, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014

If you have not heard of Leo Strauss (himself a subtle interpreter of Maimonides), move on to the next book. If Strauss is on your radar, you are most likely to fall into one of four groups: a profound admirer (with or without some normative misgivings), a passionate critic (I have not come across non-passionate critics) with strong normative misgivings, an occasional peeping Tom, not a real Straussian but one who enjoys the considerable and never-ending fracas, or, finally, an innocent bystander who may have read a piece or two and does not quite get what all the fuss is about. Robert Howse, one of those prodigies who can write with equal authority and insight on the product-process distinction in international trade as on Alexandre Kojeve (indeed, he is probably today the most authoritative interpreter of Kojeve) has recently published a book on Leo Strauss. The subtitle is Man of Peace – a provocation to many protagonists in the Strauss debate. I found the book compelling for several reasons: it is characteristic of Howse scholarship – ideas are backed by careful textual analysis and enviable erudition. He takes a strong position – he is incorrigibly normative. And finally, there is a lucidity and clarity to his text – you never struggle or waste energy in trying to understand what he, in turn, is trying to say, you can instantly engage with his thought. Like Halbertal on Maimonides, Howse on Strauss will certainly engage the experts but can serve, in the best possible way, as a primer for anyone who has kind of heard of Strauss and, indeed, wants to know what all the fuss is about. Howse takes a side in the debate but is scrupulous in alerting the readers to the positions with which he engages. And a final virtue: not too long. You can sit down on a Saturday morning and get up in the evening a wiser and more learned person.

Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, Microcosm. A Portrait of a Central European City, London: Pimlico; New Ed edition, 2003

Gregor Thum, Uprooted: How Breslau became Wroclaw during the Century of Expulsions, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011

There are the great cities of Europe: Paris, Rome, London, St. Petersburg, Berlin – add to your heart’s content. But there are, too, the magic cities of Europe. I am not talking about anyone’s favourite little jewel here or there – with a special hidden treasure, or beauty, or the place where you once fell in love, but those that are on the one hand truly important in understanding Europe, perhaps with an historical patina that gives gravitas, and in addition are beautiful and rich – in culture, in architecture or scenic beauty and, not least, in their humanity. Some candidates? In Spain? Seville rather than Madrid or Barcelona (which would be candidates for the Great City list). In Greece? Thessaloniki rather than Athens – I wait impatiently for a next May visit. Some I dream of – Odessa, for example.

One such magic city is Wroclaw, for some time Breslau. Its ancient and recent history is a quintessential European story, not to say saga. It belongs to those episodes in European history where European habitual amnesia, political correctness and discomfort with the discomfiting brings out the broom, the carpet is lifted and sweep, sweep. As part of the World War II resolution arrangements, Poland, which lost historical lands in the East to the then Soviet Union, gained Breslau, a major German, among other things, intellectual centre, with a great university (several Nobel laureates, a few Nazis, a few Jews among them – how more European do you get?). In its history the names Bohemia, Poland, Silesia, Habsburg, Germany are all part of the musical chairs. The recent shift from Breslau to Wroclaw was dramatic in its abruptness. I have heard, from local residents, of parents who moved into German homes where coats were still hanging on coat hangers in the cupboards of their new homes. Hold your horses – there are no quick and easy moral judgments to be made here.

The city, on the Oder, is handsome, parts of it stunningly beautiful. There are Starbucks but also plenty a café where you will be stepping into an older world that feels authentic, not kitched up. I experienced a vibrancy, ironic optimism (very Polish) and students and colleagues second to none. It’s unlikely that you will have the patience to read both books: Thum weighs in at circa 500 pages, Davies and Moorhouse are even a bit longer. They are both wonderfully written, they draw you in. So how to choose? Davies and Moorhouse are ‘magisterial’ but in the modern sense: the big picture is constantly woven with details; kings and paupers feature in almost equal measure. The context, European and Polish, is ever present in the presentation of the particular. The time horizon is centuries. Gregor Thum’s remarkable achievement is different. He too gives context and horizon, but the focus is on that extraordinary period in which the German population was expelled and the Poles (many of whom were expelled from the East) moved in. If you wish, the Thum volume is a microcosm of the Davies/Moorhouse Microcosm. One of Thum’s greatest achievements is his ability to deal with the huge human turmoil and tragedy – of all parties – fraught with the most difficult moral issues, with a tone and serenity which do not eschew the issues but make discussion and understanding of them possible. He has one of the great virtues of a social historian – the power of empathy. Davies/Moorhouse is rigorous history and historiography but also a clear work of love for the city, its people and its nation. If you read either book, you will not resist a visit to the city. If you visit the city, you will not resist reading one of the books. Either way you will be doubly rewarded.

Klemen Jaklic, Constitutional Pluralism in the EU, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014

I have never thought of myself as a Constitutionalist Pluralist in the famous way that the unforgettable and acutely missed Neil MacCormick and his many followers, disciples and fellow travellers have used the term. Beyond any intrinsic intellectual value, the term is usually seductive – the combined seduction of constitutionalism and pluralism. It’s almost like human rights – bring anything into the conceptual orbit of human rights and you have bestowed importance upon it (even if inadvertently you debase the currency). Constitutionalism which is not pluralist seems to have been consigned to the box of all evil isms.

I have come to consider myself as a conscientious objector to such. I feel at times that it is a fad that will fade away in our lifetime and represents a misunderstanding or misreading of the noble dimension of classical hierarchical constitutionalism. But I accept that mine is a somewhat iconoclastic view, not to say troglodyte. I also know that one’s self-definition and self-understanding is often-times self-serving – sigh, the human condition – and I will not remonstrate that in Klemen Jaklic’s book, I find myself described, thankfully in mostly favourable terms, as one of that band. Having made this disclosure I think this is an important and tremendously useful book. Constitutional Pluralism has become a little bit like Global Administrative Law – a tag which is so often used that the concept risks losing the coherent specificity that renders it useful as an analytical and cartographical tool. You are not quite sure what you are about to get, these days, when something is tagged as being CP or GAL. Jaklic’s book does two things: it maps, it puts order, it classifies – not a mean achievement; but, in addition, it develops the author’s own take, his own voice in the debate which, being informed by the various strands, constitutes a coherent defence of the entire ‘movement’. The book enables you to step back and, perhaps, to take a positon.

Nick Barber, The Constitutional State, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012

My secretary once told me that my library grows, even in the age of the internet and digital publishing, at the rate of one foot (circa 30 cm) a week, counting only books I receive as gifts from authors, publishers and the like. Add the books I buy (I deserve a bonus from Amazon) and it is no surprise that space has become a major challenge. Being a bibliophile of the old school we try to acknowledge all, and I take a peek at all – you know, preface, intro, conclusions, etc. Some, then, just go to the library, others are put on a special shelf (or, better, shelves) to be read later. It can take time, even, sigh, years. And so it was with Nick Barber’s The Constitutional State, published in 2010. So this year, finally, the book got its turn to be read seriously.

Boy, if there ever were a book that would have merited the ‘fast track’ this would be it. What would you expect from a book with this title? Tantalizing: Is it a law book? A book about the law? (More the latter in this case but not exclusively so). But after that you kind of expect a variation on the usual themes which range between organization of the state and its institutions, courts, human rights (more human rights) et cetera. What Barber does so successfully and so importantly and so refreshingly is to focus, first and foremost, on society, on the social, on sociality – on the human context in which and on which constitutionalism takes it grip. There is not an assumption of society that is to be found in many Staatslehre books; it is not an abstract; It is not the ‘Brechtian’ move of imagining the genial constitutional order and then expecting society to adapt. It presents as a result a much more interesting interplay between is and ought in thinking of constitutionalism and the state. It is also important in that in so much constitutional writing the leap is from the state to the individual – not here. The individual is of course central but as part of the social. The book is not exactly slim, but it is far from a ‘tome’. It is a book to be read, from beginning to end, not to be ‘consulted’ as is our habit. The book serves another very useful function. It reminds me of a book by an Italian colleague, Roberto Bin, Lo stato di diritto (and several other titles).  Both now are top of my list when I want to recommend a work on constitutionalism to a non-public law lawyer or even a non-lawyer. This is high praise in my eyes.

Wistawa Szymborska: Here, Boston: Mariner Books, 2012; Poems New and Collected, Boston: Mariner Books, 2000 (or any other collection of her poems)

Among its several quirks, the European Journal of International Law publishes in each quarterly issue a photograph under the rubric of Roaming Charges and a poem as its Last Page. I get a fair amount of comment on the photographs but hardly any at all on the poems, even though we have published some truly fine pieces, not least by our colleague Greg Shaffer.

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea and for many it evokes some nasty memories from high school. Frequently people remember one or two memorable poems they read and oft times were made to memorize at school. In the English-speaking world it might be a Wordsworth, or a Robert Frost, beautiful and safe. Maybe ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’? In Italy, a Leopardi or maybe an Ungaretti; in Germany, Goethe or, for the ‘daring’, a Heine. France might be a Mallarme or, with a more hip teacher, Jacque Prevert? In Israel there is a wonderful tradition that pop singers frequently use poetry, first class even, as lyrics to their saccharin tunes and with an interesting cultural result, the saccharin metabolizes, the poetry rests. But my impression is that for most poetry ceases to be an integral part of one’s life, with different degrees of sorrow or regret. Once one loses the habit it is difficult to reacquire it (‘I’d rather go to the gym than open a poetry book’).

This last year, almost simultaneously, I received as a gift two collections of the Polish 1996 Nobel Prize winner, Wistawa Szymborska: one from a dear friend in, yes, Wroclaw, a slim English-Polish bilingual collection entitled Here (Tutaj in Polish) and the other from the wonderful Polish researchers at the European University Institute, a thick volume with all the poems in Polish and Italian. That I had not read Szymborska before is without explanation. But now I am making up for it, and so should those in a similar circumstance. If it were the first poem you ever read since high school or you are an addict such as I, your pleasure, stupor, edification will all be there in abundance. Not convinced? Here are a few teasers:

From the title poem of Here (the first stanza)

Here

I can’t speak for elsewhere,

But here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything

Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,

Scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,

Teacups, dams, and quips.

….

Vermeer

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

Need I say more? I am not recommending any specific collection – any will do. There is plenty online. It may be the best of the pick after all. But a note of warning: I now have her collected poems by my bed; it is an addiction.

Michael S. Pardo and Dennis Patterson, Mind, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013

I remember the sense of incongruity I felt when Charlesworth and Chinkin first published their path-breaking feminist analysis of international law. I distinctly recall the veritable sense of Eureka I felt not even halfway through. How could one not have seen this before? You may well experience the same incongruity and then sense of Eureka reading Pardo and Patterson’s book. Some things are immediately transparent: the relevance of neuroscience in issues like lie-detection technology in the criminal process. You can excuse your incongruity by simple factual ignorance. But where the book challenges and then soars is when you get to the parts that go to fundamental and foundational blocks of law (and legal theory), such as the nature of truth and presumptions of the human condition that go to responsibility, agency, and the like. Legal thinking has lagged behind moral philosophy in thinking through or at least thinking about these issues. You will learn a lot and certainly become wiser.

Maria Aristodemou, Law & Literature: Journeys from Her to Eternity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000

This book goes back to 2000. My Harvard days. But I came across it only this year. Aristodemou published in EJIL, ‘A Constant Craving for Fresh Brains and a Taste for Decaffeinated Neighbours’ (vol. 25, no. 1, available at http://ejil.oxfordjournals.org/content/25/1/35.full.pdf+html). She then inaugurated our EJIL: Live! podcast and YouTube service with a fascinating interview. It has, to a discerning audience of course, been a hit. By this time my curiosity was whetted by this unusual and extraordinary mind and I ordered her 2000 book. The genre has been around for some time now; we do not come to it as novices. And Fresh Brains prepared me for psychoanalysis aplenty, totally sober feminism, a lot of dreaming in the strict sense. But what is so captivating in the book is that Maria (emphasis on the first A I was instructed at the interview) Aristodemou clearly loves the literature as much as she loves what it can teach us about the law (whether she loves the law is a different question). And with all the flights of imagination, startling insights and a certain levity, there is never a sense of frivolity, none of the odious ‘ironic shrug’, never forgetting that law, the yoke of the Law, is there with all its weight, as both an instrument impacting the social but also as a cultural artifact that shapes our very self-understanding. In that crowded corner, this book stands out.

Thomas D. Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

Jürgen Tautz, The Buzz about the Bees. Biology of a Superorganism, Heidelberg et al.: Springer Verlag 2008

For the last 18 years I have been an amateur and amatore (in the strict sense) beekeeper. The reaction of most: ouch! Not at all. It is not only the wonderful honey that we steal from bees, forcing them to produce more and more for their own sense of survival. It is not only the knowledge that far more important than honey is the life-giving pollination that bees provide. The British Beekeepers Association estimates that a full third of what we eat is fully or partially dependent on bee pollination. The real joy, however, is to follow the life of the colony. Although among the most ancient and hence studied insect species, this process has only been slowly and partially deciphered.

These two books, each in their own way, shift the interest from the individual bee to the ‘super organism’ – the hive, the colony, and give the reader, even those with no prior interest in bees, a most remarkable, hugely interesting set of lessons about sociality, political organization, democracy – according to Seeley – in life and death decisions made by the hive. The queen may lay up to 2000 eggs a day during the season. The hive, starting from a mere 800 bees at the end of the winter hibernation, can grow to become 40 or 50 or even 60 thousand large. But the real highlight of the life of the hive, the real ‘multiply and procreate’ imperative, takes place at the moment of swarming, when the colony, having made provision for a new queen, splits in two and a new colony, in predetermined stages, migrates to a new habitat, a new land if you wish. Professional beekeepers try to arrest, control or subsequently capture the swarming colony. Amatori like myself look forward to it. To stand still in the midst of, say, 30,000 bees swarming around you (no danger for the cognoscenti) before they settle down in a grape-like formation ahead of the next stage of migration is nothing less than a spiritual experience, a connection with nature that is hard to equal. Many are familiar with the famous bee dance – the manner in which the foragers communicate the direction and distance of usable nectar and pollen. But it is only in recent years that the much more complex decisional and communicative mechanisms related to the swarming process have begun to be understood. And, as an aside, this society, with its naturally wise and in some respects democratic decisions, is essentially female. The useless drones are killed off and disposed with a handful preserved for emergency mating. Both books provide compelling reading. I read Tautz when it came out; Seeley only this year. Take your pick. Perhaps some naturalist fodder for constitutional pluralists.

Print Friendly
 

3 Responses

  1. Patryk I. Labuda Pat

    Just a point of information: it’s Wisława Szymborska = [pron: Viswava]. I thought that might be helpful, lest you think the author ‘lying’ by your bed is pronounced Wistawa (which sounds rather different!).

  2. I have recently made a start on ‘The Constitutional State’ and am finding it hard to put down. The rest of your list has provided me with a great reading list for 2015….. many thanks

  3. […] W. Weiler, Christmas Reading? Christmas Gifts? Some Suggestions from the Editor-in-Chief, EJIL Talk!, 19 December […]