The soundtrack to our lives

Do you ever get the feeling, when you listen to a song you really liked in the past, that its momentum has expired?

You used to listen to it so often, that at some point (probably listen number 36) the music blended in with your life inconspicuously; it became synonym with whatever you were living at that moment.

Life is a continuum you can’t really split into chapters, but there are certainly some events that mark the end of an era, a turning of the wheel in a different direction, and those are the moments when music gets old.

It’s a process that happens so naturally, that you don’t even notice it until it’s over. And once it’s over, each note of that old song becomes an intruder in a moment that now belongs to a new song: the one you should be listening to.

That is unless you’re feeling nostalgic, of course. Then it’s okay to let the soundtrack to your life carry you through that bittersweet ride down memory lane.

Why bad books are good for you

So today, because it’s Sunday and all, I will write about something a bit less serious: why I think it’s necessary to read crappy books.

First of all, I think literature generally considered as “poor” has an undeserved spot in our society as something that is either frowned upon or a sign of stupidity. But when you analyze it, what makes a bad book? It’s a concept as personal as a good gift, or how you like your eggs in the morning.

Sure, we can agree on some traits that are common to all less-than-great novels: weakly devised characters, implausible storyline, artificial dialogue, incomprehensible writing and, of course, the typical grammatical errors/misspellings. You are sure to find those in any paperback you pick up at the super-market. Guaranteed.

Another emblematic slip of bad books is overwriting. That is, writing so many words it renders the phrase unintelligible. Cynthia Crossen from the WSJ hilariously quotes this example: “The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.” Huh? This quote actually won a contest as the third worst sentence ever published in academic prose.

The Twilight series is another example of literature commonly referred to as poor, if it is even called literature. Its author is a hopeless victim of what we call purple prose. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, purple prose can be best defined as writing that is characterized by sumptuous, flowery, exaggerated language. Here’s the example that epitomizes it, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

If you managed to get through that paragraph, it is the infamous “it was a dark and stormy night” quote. Much like Stephenie Meyer’s style, which uses the word chagrin so repetitively it withdraws all literary meaning from it.

But we’ve all been there: stuck with that book you don’t want to finish but you still want to give it a chance, hoping that the book will pick up towards the end. Almost never happens.

There’s also the novel recommendation from a friend whose taste you respect. Sometimes the book turns out to be a catastrophe, but you finish it anyway because you are so puzzled by why your friend would enjoy something like this, and you are persuaded the answer is also towards the end. It never is.

But, if bad literature is so difficult to describe, defining good writing is an even harder task. One example that comes to mind is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book I love despite its horrible prose. I swear, every time a character broke into a 20-page speech-monologue, I wanted to throw the book at my window. So, let’s just say it belongs to a gray area.

Likewise, Madame Bovary, often considered to be Flaubert’s masterpiece, is deemed as plain bad by a collaborator for the American Book Review. He even takes on The Little Prince and The Great Gatsby! No book is safe.

So how do we expect our children to develop a reading habit in the midst of all this confusion? That’s where crappy books come in.

When I was a little girl, my mom acquired a bookstore inside a university campus. So growing up I liked to spend my summer vacations helping out the family business, immersed in this world of books and ideas. There was no area that escaped my curiosity. Law, medicine, psychology; basically anything I could get my hands on.

But it wasn’t all textbooks. There was also a “best-seller” section with popular literature books. So naturally, my ingenuity led me to dive in the not-so obscure world of self-help books, romance novels, and the occasional literature classic. My passion for literature was thus developed thanks to books that I would probably be embarrassed to admit today.

I wish I could say it was a love-at-first-sight kind of affair with books and me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. During our reading class at school, we would read some of the following novels:

  • Poem of the Cid, written sometime between 1195-1207
  • Lazarillo de Tormes, 1554
  • María, 1867
  • Platero, 1917
  • Bodas de Sangre (Blood wedding), 1932

These are great works and classics of Spanish literature. The problem was, I couldn’t relate to any of that stuff. Heck, I could barely understand it. Here is a timeline so you can have a bit of an idea of how foreign all this was to me:

That was until we read Platero, a sweet story about a donkey. Before that, the most recent novel we read was already over a century old. How do you expect a 12 year old to create a reading habit when you force him/her to read old books he/she does not understand?

I believe there is not a single person educated in Spanish that doesn’t know by heart the words that follow “Platero es pequeño, peludo, suave …”. Platero y yo was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of all this titanic literature from a past I couldn’t relate to.

Maybe the problem wasn’t that we started with the classics. Maybe we should have started with more recent ones. In my case, I’ll never know. But I will give credit where it belongs, and acknowledge the role “poor” literature had in my education.

So the next time you’re in the metro, wrapped up in the last chapter from that vampire saga you’ve been reading, don’t try to hide it under your papers: show it with pride.

After all, how can you know what good feels like if you’ve never experienced bad? How can you appreciate wealth when you’ve never been poor?

Don’t get me wrong, you should probably not read every novel that crosses your path. But my passion for literature was born and nurtured by doing so. Until I developed taste, and then a voice of my own.

Should legal practitioners teach?

Those who can’t do, teach” is a widely quoted phrase from popular wisdom. It stems from the belief that professionals who would have otherwise been a failure in their respective fields, wind up being professors. It is said as a critique to teachers who have no field experience and teach from a purely theoretical standpoint. But would a scholar who actually has professional experience be the silver bullet?

In other words, is it really desirable, particularly in the legal field, to have as a teacher someone who is gaining recognition in the academic world while at the same time defending private interests in court and thus directly affecting (to a certain extent) the law making process?

The first question we have to ask ourselves in order to answer the interrogations above is how influential are scholarly works when it comes to law making?

If there is one thing the main legal families (namely Common Law and Civil Law) agree on, is the feeble position of juristic writings as a source of law. While this is true, one cannot deny the influential role of legal literature. In this sense, let us not forget that Article 38 of the International Court of Justice’s statute proposes “the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law”. In plain English, that means a judge X from the ICJ can grab from his office library, let’s say, Malcolm Shaw’s International Law and perfectly draw legal rules from there. Shaw is a practicing barrister. Now, this is a bad example because International Law conflicts and private parties’ interests would rarely cross.

Let’s try a better example. It could happen that a judge in the United States has a complicated first impression case to decide on Patent Law, an area that has become increasingly chaotic. He is more limited in his decision than our ICJ judge, but he can definitely consult a book or two for inspiration. So he decides to take a look at treatise written by Poltorak, who is an IP Law scholar and by the way not even a lawyer, but who happens to be the founder of a patent licensing and enforcement firm. Whether his ideas are self-interested or correct is irrelevant at this point. The fact is that legal scholars could potentially have great influence in the emergence of new legal interpretations, while at the same time having the chance to tilt the scale in favor of their clients’ interest or their own. Seriously, every time I read an article by a lawyer stating that a Patent Troll is a term impossible to define, all I can think is “he obviously works for one”. It would probably be safe to assume that if a patent law scholar were to have so-called patent trolls as clients, he would then be inclined to support a severer patent system with regards to infringements as opposed to a lawyer who defends small companies who are usually the victims of such trolling. 

This situation could worsen in the case of small developing countries where corruption and network effects are even higher. The influence that could be exerted by a prominent lawyer who teaches at universities but maintains his clientele whom he defends at court is thus greater. He would seem almost irresistible in the eyes of a magistrate.

So even if the judge would act in good faith when deciding a case, could he find himself seduced by the ideas and prestige that surrounds said attorney? From my work experience as a civil litigation attorney in my country, I believe it is certainly possible.

At the end of the day, it is probably true that scholars with professional experience are better prepared to teach. But it is only by drawing attention to this potential issue that we can make sure that neither the students nor the judges are persuaded by an idea without knowing the other side of the story, or at least where the transmitter is coming from.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

I completely relate to this article, as I often oscillate between the two types of writer’s block you describe. The tough part is to wait without feeling like you’re slacking off.

Thank you Cristian for yet another great piece.

Overcoming Writer’s Block.

Where and how was the Bill and Hillary Clinton 1970s “hippie” photo taken?

This answer exemplifies one of the reasons why I think @Quora is amazing –

Answer by Michael Oates Palmer:

My father, Charles F. Palmer, a law school classmate of Bill Clinton, took the photo. I have a photo of the same exact place and time, with B and H in same clothes, but with my mother in the photo. Bill had given them a ride to the train station. Just uploaded it to my twitter feed: @oatespalmer

I originally posted this from my iPhone, but wanted to fill in a few more gaps now that I'm at my laptop.  My mother and father came to Yale in the fall of 1970, having dated and lived together in Berkeley and in Washington DC.  My father was in Bill Clinton's law class, the class of 1973.  (Bob Reich, the future Secretary of Labor, was also in their year.) My mother, Marylouise Oates, received her Masters of Divinity from Yale around the same time.  Hillary Rodham was in the Yale law class of 1972, even though she was younger than both Bill Clinton and my father – she went straight to Yale after she graduated from Wellesley.

Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected President, my mother found this photograph in a photo album somewhere and gave me a copy.  When Hillary Clinton wrote her memoir, Living History, I saw that the photograph of just her and Bill from Yale was on the back cover — and was credited only to "courtesy of author's private collection" or something like that.  I recognized it as likely being taken around the same time as the photo with my mom, and thought it could have been taken by my dad, too, but didn't really explore it.

Probably about a year ago, people were posting the "just Bill and Hillary" Yale photo on Facebook, and I looked close at the two photos side by side, and saw that they were clearly taken at the same time and the same place — same building behind them, and BC in virtually the exact same pose.  I posted the two photographs on my Facebook page. 

A few months later — and just yesterday — a friend who is friends with a Quora staffer sent me the link to this question.  I have always wanted to see my dad, now a Superior Court Judge here in Los Angeles, given credit for taking this iconic photograph of the two Clintons.

I have the photo of the Clintons and my mom framed in my house.  When I show someone the photo, I like to let them figure out who is in the picture.  They inevitably have one of two responses: "HOLY $#&$ LOOK AT BILL CLINTON'S HAIR" or they ignore the Clintons completely — not recognizing them — and instead say, "Check out the boots your mom is rocking!"

View Answer on Quora

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