Favourite Readings 2019 – Recommendations for Vacation Reading

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As in previous years, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2019. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Sarah Nouwen. You can read all the posts in this series here.


The timing of this series of book recommendations reveals the idea behind it: books for the holidays. In a time of year when part of the professional world temporarily slows down, as though taking a deep breath for the year that is to come, the meaning of vacation can correspond with its etymological roots –vacare, ‘being unoccupied’, thus leaving time and headspace to nourish the brain and soul with the words of others. In this period of reflection on what was, and anticipation of what is to come, I crave books about how life is given meaning, in whatever form or way. In practice, however, the ‘vacation’ is often pretty filled: with chopping vegetables, wrapping gifts, seeing friends and family, and unpacking the dishwasher, leaving little time for the pile of books that I have been longing to take up. Under these circumstances, I need a list of recommendations not for what to read myself, but for what to give to others, or, even better, what to share with others. Thus, here follows a rather mixed bag, a bag for friends and family. As always, the first presents are for the younger generations (whether budding lawyers or not).

Afua Hirsch, Equal to Everything: Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court (Legal Action Group, 2019) https://www.lag.org.uk/shop/book-title/206209/equal-to-everything–judge-brenda-and-the-supreme-court

With this book we finally have a children’s book on a legal ‘superhero’: Judge Brenda Hale. Hale is known as ‘Spiderwoman’in the UK ever since she read out the unanimous UK Supreme Court ruling, while wearing a spider as her signature brooch, finding that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was void. This superhero does not protect and rescue by flying around and using physical force, but by developing laws, discussing with colleagues and writing judgments. While it is a romantic story about the power of the law, we also get a glimpse of Hale’s personal loss, struggles, and humility, which make her even moreofa superhero. Moreover, in a day and age in which the gender pay gap continues to be wide, this book can help explain to our little ones why mum is ‘on strike’! 

Erik Orsenna, La grammaire est une chanson douce (Éditions Stock, 2001)

This book is for slightly older children, already familiar with the basics of grammar.  As with all good children’s books, the book is at least as enjoyable for the adults reading with them. A brother and sister survive a shipwreck and land on an island. So far, hardly original. The children have lost their speech. Fortunately for them, they have landed on an island inhabited by words: articles, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, all peacefully living together, sometimes even marrying each other. But some words are in hospital:

Elle était là, immobile sur son lit, la petite phrase bien connue, trop connue : Je taime. Trois mots maigres et pâles, si pâles. Il me sembla quelle nous parlait:

  • Je suis un peu fatiguée. Il paraît que j’ai trop travaillé. Il faut que je me repose.
  • Alllons, allons, Je t’aime, lui répondit Monsieur Henri, je te connais. … Tu es solide. Quelques jours de repos et tu seras sur pied. …

Tout le monde dit et répète‘Je taime’. Il faut faire attention aux mots. Ne pas les répéter à tout bout de champ. Ni les employer à tort et à travers, les uns pour les autres, en racontant des mensonges. Autrement, les mots susent. Et parfois, il est trop tard pour les sauver.

It was this passage, reproduced on the cover of the book, that made me take it off the shelves after more than a decade. At a time when I was reading thousands of pages of essays, PhD theses and articles, I was reminded of my own mentors’ concerns about the overuse of certain words in international law. One warned against speaking of the ‘nature’ of international law or treaties ‘enshrining’ rules and principles; the other pleaded for a more restricted use of the word ‘constitutional’. I usually feel for the term ‘international community’. Which words do you think need some time to recuperate?

Nigel Eltringham, Genocide Never Sleeps: Living Law at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (CUP, 2019)

Yet another book on the achievements of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda? Ever since the Tribunal was instructed to prepare to close down, it engaged more and more in what Sara Kendall and I have labelled ‘legacy talk’: speaking of one’s legacy in order to consolidate a set of interpretations about the substance and value of what is left behind. There have been several special issues, edited books, videos, all stressing the importance of the ICTR’s work for the development of international criminal law; for the Rwandan legal system; even for peace and reconciliation in Rwanda, albeit without much evidence in that area. This book by anthropologist Nigel Eltringham, however, is in a totally different category. Rather than looking only at text (statutes, transcripts and judgments), he engages in interviews and ‘deep hanging out’ with lawyers working at the Tribunal. One of them muses: ‘When we walk out: what was it all about?’ Eltringham shows how lawyers working for the Tribunal all try to give meaning to, and deduce meaning from, what they are doing, and how they answer that same question in very different ways. The result is a beautiful ethnography of the inner workings of an international criminal tribunal. For anyone who wants to understand international criminal justice, or indeed legal practice more generally, this book is as important as the classic doctrinal treatises – and a better read at that. 

Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (Harper Perennial, Modern Classics, 2010)

Here we again deal with ‘the drive to escape death’s oblivion’, but now in the form of a ‘teaching novel’ and in the context of late 19th-century Vienna. Lou Salomé seduces medical doctor Joseph Breuer to try to treat Friedrich Nietzsche without the latter realizing that he is being treated. The author is a psychiatrist himself and at the end one wants to know how much of what was said corresponds with what these key historical figures actually wrote, said and did. I also wondered how the plot would have changed had Hans Kelsen, member of the Viennese circle only a few decades later, joined in. But many of the passages continue to resonate. Didn’t I recently hear a colleague speak along (fictional) Nietzsche’s lines (p. 70): ‘My publisher, Schmeitzner in Chemnitz, is in the wrong profession. His proper destiny would have been international diplomacy or, perhaps, espionage. He is a genius at intrigue, and my books are his greatest secret. In eight years he has spent nothing – not one pfennig – on publicity. He has not sent out one copy for review, nor placed one book in one bookstore.’ More positively, it is a book about self-awareness, critical inquiry and conscious choosing. Perfect subjects to reflect on while taking a deep breath for 2020. 

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