Editor’s note: Continuing a tradition started by Isabel Feichtner a few years ago, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, invited members of the EJIL board to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2018. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They comprise a wide range of books, from (a few) doctrinal legal texts, to (many more) historical accounts and works of fiction. Unlike in many official book prize competitions, 2018 does not necessarily stand for the year of publication; rather, board members were asked to list books they read or re-read this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. Today we have Sarah Nouwen’s choices.
Sometimes, writing is easier without reading. Skim-reading the most recent work on a topic, one may find sufficient disagreements to pick a fight with. But truly widely reading about a topic, going back several decades, if not centuries, makes one realise how many of one’s arguments have already been made, and much better. Ultimately, of course, it is such wide reading that allows one’s own work to mature. It is also an act of rebellion against the pressures of quantitative assessments of one’s work, and an inspiring source for the scholar’s primary job: to educate, first oneself, and then others.
So, in the spirit of better late than never, this year’s list includes some books that I should have read long ago.
I opened this book to develop a stronger grasp on the international law of self-determination. I closed it with an even broader understanding of everything that self-determination could mean, depending on who interprets it, and who gets to participate in the process of interpretation. Putting her finger on one of the paradoxes of self-determination, Knop shows that those most affected by self-determination are often excluded from the process of its legal interpretation. While this may be the case for many legal norms, it is paradoxical for self-determination, which is essentially concerned with people deciding for themselves.
But the book’s significance goes far beyond self-determination. I’ll use it for teaching classes on interpretation: thought you knew what this text meant? Read Knop and you’ll be surprised in how many ways the same few lines can be understood, depending on one’s world view and what we consider coherent or incoherent.