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Washington Lawyer

My Top Shelf Books: So Many, So Varied

From Washington Lawyer, May 2015

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorYes, books on the top shelf. Long ago opened, some read, and pages marked to be read again. For instance, J. B. Priestley’s book, Essays of Five Decades, published in 1969.

Priestley (1894–1984), a British writer, wrote essays, novels and plays, including An Inspector Calls (1945). It was made into a movie. If you wish to see that clever movie, I believe you may download it or see it on Netflix.

Priestley’s essay “The Moments,” with these exceptional words, is one to be read again:

All my life, I now realise, I have been nourished and secretly sustained by certain moments that have always seemed to me to be magical. If I have completed the tasks and shouldered the burdens all the way, finishing the marches without handing over my rifle and pack or dropping out, it is neither conscience nor energy that has kept me going but the memory and the hope of this magic. It has visited me before; it will come again. Sooner or later I would taste the honey-dew once more. And if this is to have a romantic temperament, then I have a romantic temperament. If there is immaturity here, then I am still immature in my seventy-first year. . . . Of course the moments do not arrive as often as they did, but I soldier on in the belief that I have not yet used up my ration, that there are still a few more to come.

Priestley also wrote about coincidences. He wrote that coincidences are more frequent with age. I think he is right. One took place recently in Meridian Hill Park, the place I walked through years ago to get to the H. D. Cooke Elementary School.

Meridian Hill Park is located at 16th and Euclid Streets. It has a long playing field for sports and other activities.

As I was near the park, I decided to drop in to see how it is doing. It is doing very well. I sat on a bench to watch the goings-on—kites flying, people playing ball, people enjoying themselves.

An elderly woman walked by with her dog where I was sitting. I chatted with her about dogs. I asked her where she lives. She said she lives on Belmont Street, at the Cresthill. There is the striking coincidence! Years ago, I lived right across from the Cresthill on Belmont Street.

Now for another top shelf book. It is named Half-Lengths, by G.W.E. Russell (1853–1919), published in 1913. Russell, an English politician, described another politician named Henry Labouchere in the House of Commons. It is a little long, but stay with it, and you’ll see how to describe a politician:

[Labouchere] was the oracle of an initiated circle, and the smoking-room of the House of Commons was his shrine. There, poised in an American rocking chair and delicately toying with a cigarette, he unlocked the varied treasures of his well-stored memory, and threw over the changing scenes of life the mild light of his genial philosophy. It was a chequered experience that made him what he was. He had known men and cities; had probed in turn the mysteries of the Caucus, the Green-room, and the Stock Exchange; had been a diplomatist, a financier, journalist, and a politician. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that his faith—no doubt originally robust—in the rectitude of human nature and the purity of human motive should have undergone some process of degeneration. Still, it may be questioned whether, after all that he had seen and done, he really was the absolute and all-round cynic that he seemed to be. The palpable endeavour to make out the worst of everyone—including himself—gave a certain flavour of unreality to his conversation; but, in spite of this drawback, he was an engaging talker. His language was racy and incisive, and he spoke as neatly as he wrote. His voice as pleasant, and his utterance deliberate.

And yet another book on the top shelf. It has a green binding and is titled The Lawyer’s Alcove: Poems by the Lawyer, for the Lawyer and About the Lawyer, edited by Ina Russelle Warren and published in 1900. A prominent lawyer in his time, Chauncey M. Depew, wrote these words:

There is little poetry in a lawyer’s life, but a good deal of romance. It is said that there are one million novels and only twenty-eight plots. If the door of the attorney’s skeleton closet was opened, the world’s stock of tragedies and comedies would be enormously increased. His cardinal principle is to safeguard the secrets of his clients. While the law is the best abuse of the professions, the fidelity of counsel to the confidences reposed in them redeems human nature from the faults and foibles in other pursuits which condemn it. Family feuds fought out and then hushed up the mystery of wills, the settlement of estates, and the adjustment of differences between relatives and business associates full of every element, which furnish the characters and weave the plots of successful stories. The realism of the drama which makes the stage the portrayal of the strength and weakness, the danger and the triumphs, of life, and of the eternal warfare between virtue and vice pervades all the chapters from the lawyer’s register.

Reach Jacob A. Stein.