Teacher of Law Finds Lessons of Wisdom in Literature

The Boston Globe – August 22, 2010
By Amanda Katz

As a law student at Harvard in the late 1980s, Barack Obama was inspired by a young professor named Martha Minow. Today, Minow is dean of the law school, a beloved professor, and a much-published expert on post-conflict societies, equality, and human rights. This year, she made Obama’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees, though the nod finally went to her predecessor as dean, Elena Kagan.

Minow's latest book, "In Brown's Wake,'' explores the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. She spoke to us while on vacation on Cape Cod.

What are you reading this summer?
I'm reading Alice Munro's stories, "Too Much Happiness''; a kind of sad book called "Resentment's Virtue,'' about refusal to forgive; and [Melvin] Urofsky's biography of [Louis D.] Brandeis. I just finished two great novels: "The Cookbook Collector,'' by Allegra Goodman, and a forthcoming one by Gish Jen, "World and Town.''

Can you always find time to read for pleasure?
I don't draw a sharp line between professional and personal reading. The novels are often as relevant to my professional life as the nonfiction. I find everything relevant to everything.

Do you remember discussing books with Obama?
He took a class from me on law and society, where we read Mill and Weber, and he was a voracious reader. He had a reading group that he invited me to at one point.

What do you think of his books?
I think they're beautifully written and insightful and original. "Dreams from My Father'' has become a classic account of a journey of the self.

For your own new book, did any books particularly inform your research?
One reason I wrote it was that I kept waiting for someone to tell the story of Brown's repercussions beyond race - with regard to gender, disability, language, immigration, sexual orientation, and religion - and there wasn't a book on that. There are more on gender; Rosemary Salomone's book about single-sex schools was helpful. In the racial context there are many excellent books, including Richard Kluger's "Simple Justice.''

You've also written about national reconciliation after ethnic or religious conflict. Is there a role for literature there?
Oh, yes, and fiction and even poetry are as relevant as nonfiction. There's a wonderful memoir, "My Winds of Change'' by Wilhelm Verwoerd, a grandson of the inventor of apartheid, describing his journey from believing in apartheid to joining the ANC. Another powerful one is "Country of My Skull'' by Antjie Krog, an Afrikaner journalist and poet. Probably the most amazing one I read was "A Human Being Died That Night'' by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. It's based on her expertise as a psychologist who advised the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it's also a poetic exploration of her feelings about forgiveness.

What writers do you try to emulate?
I don't really think about other writers when I write. Except maybe my daughter. She just graduated from high school. She wrote a book, a beautiful novel called "Stones of Power.'' I think about her writing. In fact, everyone in my family has written books: my husband, my dad, my mom, and both of my sisters. We joke that we have our own Library of Congress number.

Are there books that attract law students into the field - or that would-be lawyers should read?
For a long time, students mentioned "To Kill a Mockingbird.'' These days, popular images of law and conflict permeate the way that lawyers, judges, and legislators talk, and being alert to these images is important to any lawyer. In addition, I think great works of literature and history are crucial in allowing the lawyer to journey toward wisdom. Because ultimately we are called upon for wise judgments as well as smart ones.

Last modified: October 07, 2010

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