On Non-Required Reading

I read a great article this morning: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer did an interview (originally in French!) about his affection for French author Marcel Proust and his landmark novel Á la recherce du temps perdu (frequently translated in to English as “In Search of Lost Time” or “Remembrance of Things Past”). Read the full article here.

There’s a lot to love in this article. The justice talks about his love of reading French literature in the original (an argument for foreign language education!) and also his love for the humanities. He encourages students interested in becoming lawyers to major in “anything but law” as undergraduates so they can gain the empathy required to reflect best of the issues at hand in the law. 

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the piece:

The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.

There are some great take-home messages from this article. The first is to never take yourself too seriously: I’ve long adored this about Justice Breyer, ever since I heard him play the “Not My Job” segment on NPR’s news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” a few years ago. (You can listen to that segment here.) I love that the Justice doesn’t consider this or any other conversation beneath him. I think that’s a great lesson: none of us are so important and unapproachable that we can’t reflect a while on parts of the human experience other than our jobs.

Secondly, and more critically, I love what Justice Breyer suggests about reading in our free time. I completely agree with him that the things we read offer us important insights into all dimensions of our lives–even and especially when that reading doesn’t directly relate to  our “required” reading. By reading Proust, Breyer says, he’s gained access to the entire world of human experience and emotion, and that access inevitably colors and shapes his reading and work elsewhere. I completely agree with this viewpoint, though I happen to come at it from a different book: I argue that the entire range of human experience is encapsulated in an insanely long work of fiction that I too read in my free time: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I happen to think Tolstly does a better job of it than Proust (which says more about my affection for Joyce, Woolf, and Tolstoy than it does about anything substantive about Proust), but the point is that I can take part in this conversation at all because of the things I’ve read electively, passionately, and deeply.

Once again, the message is clear: read, read, read. It’s never a bad idea. And it always leaves room for an enlightening, uplifting experience.

I leave you with one last quote from Justice Breyer:

To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe. We are surrounded by colors, shapes, and sounds. We can arrange all these things in an attractive and constructive manner, as in a painting or a symphony. And that is what Proust did with his writing. Of course, he was supremely talented—but I firmly believe that every one of us can, to some extent, try to establish order amid chaos.


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