Spinning Straw into Gold
posted by Nate Oman
I was initially attracted to the law because I thought that the books looked cool. My father is an art historian and my mother was an adjunct English professor before she became a tech writer. My grandfathers were a rancher and a farmer respectively. I did not come from a legal background. Nevertheless, my first year of college I wrote a paper that required that I venture into the law library, and I was entranced by the look and feel of old copies of the U.S. Reports.
There was something about the heavy mustiness of the books, the calfskin bindings, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century type faces that captured my imagination. The books just looked like they contained “lore” and “learning.” One of the great pleasures of my clerkship was going through my judge’s personal collection of rare legal books: a first edition of Blackstone, Yearbooks printed in the 17th and 16th centuries, a Restoration-era printing of the record in Charles I’s trial, and so on.
My wife finds my fascination on this point incomprehensible. She has poked about in some of my law books and finds the disputes about assumpsits, pendant jurisdiction, or legal hermeneutics that I love unspeakably dry. As she rightly points out, her books have pictures of dismembered cadavers and diagrams of the swallowing mechanism. Much more interesting.
Nevertheless, to me there is a kind of beauty in seeing how the law weaves the pedestrian disputes of life into a fabric ultimately concerned with power, justice, and the good society. Jurisprudence spins the straw of the everyday into the gold of applied philosophy and political economy. No mean feat, that.
It seems to me that spinning straw into gold is a great deal of what lawyers – practical and academic – do. You take a pile of undistinguished facts and turn it into a story about wrong and injustice, the distribution of political power, the advance of prosperity, or so on. Professors – if they are good – can take the mundane details of their subjects and spin connections to basic themes about human action and the good society. Apart from its intrinsic value, one of the things that makes the law fascinating for me is the sheer intellectual challenge of taking the boring or the pedestrian and making it interesting.