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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Listening to Books on the Run

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2005

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator For years when I awakened in the morning I had the feeling that this may be the day I was to receive a unique thought, an epiphany that would tell me what life is all about. I felt the long-awaited event would occur if only I remained in bed and induced the proper state of wakeful repose.

One day I did receive the epiphany. It was that I was one of those destined to use the same feeble flicker of light that guides the generality of the populace.

When this happened I decided to get out of bed and start moving around. I was influenced in my decision by a physician with a staggering array of legal problems involving himself and his family. I asked him how he gathered the strength to get out of bed in the morning. He said he felt terrible every morning, but he knew it was only because his endocrine system worked at a low level while he slept. That, he said, explains early morning depression. He knew it would disappear once he was hopping around the office and seeing patients.

Impressed by the common sense of this theory, I decided to get up and drive over to American University and run around the track. What the physician said was true. No matter how bad it is, things change for the better after a run, no matter how slow the run is. It is always (and I mean always) better to get up, go outside (even if it is raining), and jump around.

About this time I noticed an advertisement for Books on Tape. I sent for the catalog and found that Books on Tape rented cassettes of unabridged readings of good books. My first selection was Thoreau’s Walden. I hooked up a Walkman and jogged around Walden Pond with Thoreau. I heard a voice well suited to my idea of how Thoreau would sound to me: “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

One day at the AU track, I thought to myself how I had envied people who could afford to hire a personal reader. I recalled that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. used his law clerks as personal readers.

The justice’s career was the envy of many people for things other than the fact that he had a personal reader. Justice Holmes, as a youth, went to war on the Union side, survived three wounds, and returned a hero. He published a significant law book, The Common Law, before he was 40. He looked good. Money was never a real problem. He wanted a judgeship. He not only got himself appointed to the Massachusetts state court, but got himself appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. He had a distinguished group of friends in high places who were relentless in their determination to make the justice the most famous justice of all. He was healthy in mind and body into his nineties. He had a happy marriage and some interesting flirtations.

He wrote and received letters that are a pleasure to read. He had a private life of the mind that included reading the best books in the original Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian. He is the subject of five biographies and one play.

The justice wrote his own opinions. That explains their commendable brevity. He used his law clerks for more important things such as reading to him as he sat close by, occasionally dozing off.

I have gone the justice one better. I have listened to many books read by excellent professional readers, certainly much better readers than ambitious law clerks distracted by thoughts of a career guaranteed to be brilliant by virtue of their getting the best clerkship ever there was.

A year ago Books on Tape went out of the audio book rental business. This is a great loss to me and to many others who relied on its audio books. I hope someplace, somewhere the Books on Tape library is preserved and will one day reappear. Things of unique value sometimes disappear and reappear. An example is the hundreds of pictures that cover the walls at the new Occidental Restaurant located next to the Willard. These are pictures of prominent people of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties.

When the old Occidental closed down, the pictures were bought at a giveaway price by a collector who took them off the walls, one by one, covered them with newspapers, stored them away in a garage, and forgot about them. By chance the owners of the new Occidental thought it would be a good idea to get them, and put them back where they belong. Through some good luck, the new Occidental owners discovered who had the pictures. They were transported from the garage back to the walls of the restaurant. You now can see the likes of Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, General George C. Marshall, Jack Dempsey, Charles Lindbergh, and Warren G. Harding, all as young men of promise.

Books on Tape also sold audio books. I bought C. P. Snow’s A Coat of Varnish. The title refers to a scene where two elegant gentlemen get caught up in a bar fight involving a gang of bullies. After the fight one says to the other that people who live in a nice cushioned world do not realize that civilization is hideously fragile. “There’s not much between us and the horrors underneath. Just about a coat of varnish, wouldn’t you say?”

The story is a mystery in which the action takes place in fashionable Belgravia in West End London. It is a quiet, civilized neighborhood inhabited by people concerned with the commonplaces of the everyday living of the privileged. This is disrupted when an elderly woman they knew is brutally murdered. The murderer is her doctor, but he is not indicted. Read it.

A good book, read by a good reader, is diversion enough to make you shrug off the notice that your flight that was marked Delayed has now been marked Canceled.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.