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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator:Tapering Off

From Washington Lawyer, June 2006

By Jacob A. Stein


Cyril Connolly, the British critic and essayist, in his essay titled “Tapering Off” deals with his book-buying obsession. He resolves he will buy no more books. He will decide on the books he will keep and the books he will give away.

Book collectors do not try to sell their books. That would be sinful. Either give them away or leave them up to the executor and the auctioneer to get the best price.

Those of us with Connolly’s disease, having made the same resolution, know we cannot walk by a used-book store without peeking inside to take a look at the stock. We do so in the hope we will find the book that tells us what life is all about and how we can keep the Devil from placing mean-spirited people in positions of brief authority where they can abuse the defenseless. If we do walk past the bookstore without going in, we know we are ready for assisted living.

I have gathered together some books I have not opened for many years. I have decided to put them in the Give Away box after taking one last look. These books are so-called bedside books or commonplace books. Each contains quotations, poems, short stories, and commentary. They are to be read before nodding off to sleep. Nothing exciting. Each has turned-down pages signaling to me that there is something on the page that I thought worth rereading.

Here is an old book by Arthur Mee titled Book of Everlasting Things. On a turned-down page is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem about a life lived in obscurity and ending in death with dignity:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

On another turned-down page is an excerpt from Francis Bacon’s essay on cunning:

We take cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom. And certainly there is a great difference, between a cunning man and a wise man; not only in point of honesty, but in point of ability. There be, that can pack the cards, and yet cannot play well; so there are some that are good in canvasses and factions, that are otherwise weak men.

Deciding whether a lawyer is cunning or is wise requires considerable skill. Cunning can bring short-term gains, but as a career strategy it proves to be unwise.

Here is F. J. Sheed’s The Guest Room Book. On a turned-down page I read the following by Hilaire Belloc:

A man stands on a platform. He is about to address a packed audience of Swindlers, Cowards, Bounders, Painted Harridans and Trolls. He opens his mouth to address them. What does he say? He says “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Here is Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook. It contains “the inspired and inspiring selections gathered during a life time of discriminating reading.” The turned-down page has good advice to lawyers:

Too much emphasis is no emphasis—raise your voice too loud and no one hears you. Hit too hard and you excite sympathy for your victim. Draw your indictment too sweeping and it becomes suspicious.

The next book is The ‘Week-End’ Calendar. It has an article titled “Justices’ Justice,” written in the 1930s by an angry English solicitor, who does not give his name. He writes anonymously because he wants to expose what goes on in the magistrate’s courts where he practices:

Another serious defect is that there is no age limit for magistrates. I have seen a bench of three, the youngest of whom was seventy-five, and the clerk was over seventy. It is quite common for magistrates who are almost completely deaf to sit. The deaf, however, are by no means the worst, for they at least keep silence and are not confused by misunderstanding the evidence. The older the magistrate, the more biased he is against the accused, and the more merciless he is as a rule. Old men tend to be cruel, partly from an unconscious desire to assert the power which they feel to be failing them.

Well, that is enough for now. I hope to use the public library to keep my resolution not to buy. The first library I set foot in many years ago was the Mount Pleasant branch located on 16th Street near Irving. I walked out with three books returnable in two weeks. There was no charge. A remarkable experience.

I have shifted to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 9th and G streets. It has friendly people and books and an impressive collection of audiocassettes and videos.

My idea of the perfect law library was the D.C. Bar Association on the third floor of the United States Courthouse. It had a helpful librarian. There was free use of the telephone for local calls. It had big tables. The books were on open shelves. It had windows. A place to talk with lawyers about this judge or that judge. A place to take down the books and find a case that may help. A place to get things copied.

It disappeared years ago. The courthouse needed more office space. The D.C. Bar Association could no longer afford the upkeep. The crisscross of these forces closed down a place where you could retreat and quietly consider drafting the motion for a new trial as you watched an evening snowstorm.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].