‘That Which Is Hateful to You, Do Not Do to Your Fellow! That is the Whole Torah; The Rest is Interpretation’ (from the Elder Hillel in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

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I am creeping up to the age where some friends and former students have approached me with the idea of a Festschrift (Mélange, Liber Amicorum). Of course I was touched and moved by the expression of friendship and respect. But it took me no more than a few nanoseconds politely to decline, having Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule in mind.

It is an institution that has lost any real meaning in more than one sense. When is the last time you actually picked up one of those expensive tomes to read through it? When you are approached by the well-meaning organizers and ‘editors’ (here’s another Golden Rule: do not expect anything more than copyediting in Festschriften) your heart sinks. Of course one cannot say No to an enterprise honouring a colleague whom you respect, oftentimes a friend. In a world where most of us are always behind with our writing commitments it is usually a considerable disruption. Not surprisingly, many Festschriften are replete with recycled writing, and understandably so. Are we expected to drop what we are doing and start some new research project and pen a new article because someone’s birthday is approaching? And then see it buried in a Festschrift, no matter how eminent the honoree? If most edited books are cemeteries, Festschriften are the Arlington National Cemetery of legal scholarship. Since there is a deadline connected to a birthday, it is hard to delay, and so the pieces become even more rushed and the editing even more lax. If there is any honour in these tomes it is not in the content but, it would seem, in the list of names (‘My festschrift is longer than yours….’). I have often wondered if the honoree himself or herself manages to wade through the whole thing beyond the Table of Contents.

I have done a quick unscientific check (the kind of stuff you can get away with if you are writing for a Festschrift): outside the German-speaking world (where anyway you have a bevy of assistants to do your research for you), citations to Festschriften are scarce. And although the practice is changing, contributions to Festschriften are not as systematically entered into data bases and are thus less susceptible to contemporary modes of legal research. The cost of production is such – especially the heavy multi-volume ones, in which the world and his sister are invited to contribute – that not infrequently even the contributors do not get a free copy, given the prohibitive cost of the entire work (I always sigh in relief). I am practically positive that no individual buyer has ever shelled out for a Festschrift.

If there is any interest at all in the work, it is to see who’s in and, even more interestingly, who’s not. Sometimes one is told that ‘it is a secret’! I don’t always believe it and in any event if it really were a secret that is a risky path. Who may you have forgotten? Who might you have erroneously included?

I want to believe that at least some of you concur. So why does this plague still rain down on us? Mostly inertia I suspect and a practice which, alas, has become normative. A wish, perhaps, of appreciative students and friends not to offend or disappoint a beloved teacher or colleague by not organizing one? And, of course, Vanitas Vanitatum, the Human Condition in all its glory. But surely there are a myriad other ways to display respect and affection. A simple card, signed by friends? Five words rather than 5,000?

So here: Geriatrics of the World, Unite! Just Say No!


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