Longreads

On Not Being Able to Read

Kaimantha / Unsplash, Collage by Katie Kosma

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Tajja Isen | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,869 words)

They told me I wouldn’t be able to read anymore. That the pleasure of the text, like a lover in a non-law degree, would slowly grow opaque to me — if pleasure were something I even had time to consider. In exchange, I’d learn how to do other things with words: plow through pages of bad legal prose and extract the principle like an animal’s delicate skeleton. Hold up the skull to the dim courtroom light and proclaim its equivalence to the fossils of a different era, a strange phrenology. Memorize the divots in the bones of critters past. Legal education calls this “learning to think like a lawyer.”

After a few weeks of living that story, my body and I revolted at cross-purposes. The stresses of the program congealed into physical illness, which offended me; more often, panic meant productivity. Rather than resting, I hauled myself to a campus book sale I can only recall in feverish splashes — an indiscriminate hunger to grab and possess; the close press of bodies in airless rooms; violent shivers that kept sending my stack of books askew — and somehow came home with a shelf’s width of volumes: Stendhal and Dickens and DeLillo and Mann; Maugham and Poe and Davies and Irving; Gallant and Munro and Atwood and Moore. Mostly men, all of them white, and completely in violation of my network of rules for used book condition. More striking still was that nothing in the stack seemed to call to me, which was likely strategic. Even fever-drunk — a state in which, apparently, I backslid into canonical reverence — I sensed that it would lessen my feelings of loss if the books I kept around me were not ones I burned to read. Loading up my shelves was more gestural than practical; a finger to the mythos of the law school and a memorial to a version of myself that I refused to let disappear entirely.

In ceasing to read — to truly read; to give myself over to the absorptive, ecstatic obliteration of deep reading — I was giving up what made me.

A few nights a week, I’d make a feeble attempt at proving the world wrong, swimming up through my exhaustion to pick up a novel and push through its pages. Sentences were newly terrifying; tiny minefields of meaning where I might miss a principle I’d later be called upon to produce, freshly plucked. I labored for months over what had once taken me days. I told myself that this was pleasure; that these motions were sufficient proof that I hadn’t allowed myself to be drained of joy and filled with something else.

At the same time, institutional culture had already burrowed into me deeply enough that I fetishized the struggle. In law school, you’re told to stay in touch with the passions that propelled you to the program in the first place, but that refrain drops off after a while. A different doctrine takes hold among the students: the competitive shedding of life weight. It’s not a necessary part of the degree — or, at least, it doesn’t have to be — but it’s there in the air, free-floating, seductive as six figures: streamline your life. Slough off everything except what’s necessary. Others in my cohort might have given up hobbies; in ceasing to read — to truly read; to give myself over to the absorptive, ecstatic obliteration of deep reading — I was giving up what made me. It hurt, but it was a hurt I’d begun to covet. Certain absences worked well as weapons against weakness.

Pop culture loves to knock the law student “type” — argumentative, intense, analytical. Like many caricatures, this one is not entirely without its truth. There is a large part of me that, for whatever reason, has always bought into the fantasy of a life pruned of excess, my intensity directed toward a single cause. Recently I reread my admissions essay from between my fingers, facing the version of myself that I’d crafted for the committee four years prior. The essay, with a candor that unsettles me now, shows the psychological profile of someone perfectly susceptible to the myths that prop up the degree and the standard legal career: a willingness to cast off the burdens of a life, both accumulated and prospective, in the blinkered quest for professional success. This despite my CV’s unlikely assortment of creative pursuits — voice actor, writer, musician — which has led both peers and employers to ask me, repeatedly, as if conspiring to chip away at my resolve, “But why are you even here?”

Part of this, of course, is just the nature of a professional program, the commitment to a career track, and the long con of adulthood — there will be winnowing, both willed and not. But there’s a specific mechanism by which legal culture, especially within the law school, transforms these sacrifices into virtue. Through constant, interlinked reminders of what you’ve given up in order to be here, how miserable you must be because of it, and how successful you’ll ultimately become as a result of this misery, the institution chugs along on student suffering. I see it in the cynical remarks professors make about rising rates of anxiety and debt; in the way students strive to outperform one another affectively as well as academically; in the program’s resistance to any pedagogical change despite ongoing critiques that it bears little resemblance to the profession. I see it in the students who become its figureheads; shrewd careerists whom I view in the same way that I do young mothers, in the hazy space between prescriptive and injunctive. Once, while seeking advice from a prize-winning upper-year student — an elite athlete, a charismatic speaker, a razor-sharp writer — feeling like I’d surely burdened him with enough first-year anxieties, I pivoted to ask him about his non-law interests. His response: “I don’t have any.”

Early in the program, law students are introduced to the case method, the cornerstone of legal pedagogy. The process reconfigures the reader as a kind of filtration mechanism, an entity that sifts through the dense prose of judicial decision-making to exhume its constituent parts: the facts; issue (the central question on which the case “turns”); rule (the principle for which the case “stands”); holding (the outcome of the case); and reasons (the court’s justification). The crucial information — usually the principle, the statement that sets a legal precedent and influences the outcome of similar cases — is neither signposted nor frontloaded, which is presumably why you need to pay thirty-three thousand a year to learn how to find it.

At first, I was thrilled by the idea of learning a new textual approach, especially one that held detection in such high regard. Much of my undergraduate work in literature had involved training myself out of the conviction that a text was a thing to be decoded and mastered, but the case method implied I’d been right all along. But excavating a principle is only the first step. The case method takes its rationale from the second, trickier stage — the isolation, manipulation, and codification of the connective tissue that exists between legal principles. Any legal argument is bound by law’s incremental development: you cannot make a point without citing its precedent in previous cases. Equally crucial is the understanding of law’s jagged jumps through the years––how the court has ruled on the issue in the past, and what course that might chart for the future. To work in a given legal area, then, is to know the leading cases of your field, able to cite the authorities at a moment’s notice. Or so I’ve been told.

The process reconfigures the reader as a kind of filtration mechanism, an entity that sifts through the dense prose of judicial decision-making to exhume its constituent parts.

I must have missed a key lesson early on; the one where they teach you how to mix the glue that holds the principles together. The prospect of having all of my arguments tied to this logic is a stricture that I still — even three years later, when I’ve read the leading cases in various areas — can’t properly grasp. After half a year in the program, I wrote off the incompatibility between myself and the material as par for the course; a year after that, as unfortunate but still forgivable. At the time of writing, I’m about to graduate. Now I just find it offensive. I recognize that it takes a great deal of work to make an alternative system of thought feel intuitive, or even just intelligible. But my problem isn’t the work, or even with the method’s complexity — it’s with its simplicity. To adhere to precedent, restricting your output to the ambit of previous decisions, is a total foreclosure of rhetorical and narrative potential (and yes, I knew this going into the program). That foreclosure, of course, is the only way that law can function as a large-scale social organizer — not to mention what I’d been hoping it would do to my life.

The program’s mythical intensity foretold of an institutional machine that would absorb my frenzied efforts, and through a process of useful mangling, spit them out the other end in the form of gimlet-eyed productivity. I found this story comforting — my fears are innumerable, but hard work isn’t one of them. Like trial by fire, law school promised me purification from all of my precarious artistic strivings; a path along which I would travel at a velocity strong enough to sweep up all of my inconsistent selves — reader, writer, performer, critic — and tame them under the socially sanctioned rubric of “lawyer.” Its benefits stretched backward and conferred a sense of direction on my esoteric résumé. I’m afraid to count how many of my decisions have been borne of the desire, whether warranted or paranoid, to dodge accusations of “dilettante.”

Fast forward to second year, and I realized that “black-letter law” courses — ones that focus on a specific corner of legal doctrine, like family or tax — demanded mastery of what felt like impossible-to-learn skills. Even now, when they’re about to hand me a J.D., this sense of the impossible persists. I teach myself the law by reading it over and over. No critical thinking or engagement that dips below the surface — just paranoid, repetitive reading until I can recite the cases and their corresponding tests.

Though students have to take a certain number of black-letter law courses to fulfill the dictates of the degree, I skated by on the bare minimum, loading my plate instead with ones that took law itself as an object of study: Law and Literature, Racial Politics and the Law, Statutes and Statutory Interpretation. Law as text rather than doctrine: this, I could understand. I picked up a concurrent M.A. in English, an option the law school offers but few take up, though not for reasons you’d expect, like the dread of a heavier workload — but because of its presumed uselessness in court or boardrooms. Though the program streams you toward a certain career track — especially given the University of Toronto’s proximity to Bay Street, the corporate market’s central nervous system — I started to drag my toes off the treadmill. My attention swerved from the skeletons of cases to the missing gristle; the human meat the law leaves out.


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A shift in direction, a change in trajectory, is not always the result of a conscious choice to take a different route. We can be redirected by the unexpected encounter, a deviation that’s not always felt as a loss — it can equally be registered as a gift; the long, slow opening of unimagined possibility. Partway through first year, I was thrown as much by such an encounter as I was by my academic disillusionment. He wasn’t studying the law, though he’d considered it once, years ago. He too had been raised on a literary-canonical diet but was doing far better work than me in finding alternatives to it. I’d never lent a book until we started passing them back and forth and I realized, parsing Barthes, that I’d begun to read again. There were many months and obstacles before we got together. Long before we did I confessed to people, in mixed wonder and despair, that merely being near him was as close as I’d ever felt to another person.

He was the reason I found myself in and out of Ithaca during the summer after first year, weaving back and forth across the border to gather evidence for my hypothesis: that, as regards the energy between people, ours was of far higher quality than the standard-issue stuff. While browsing a second-hand bookshop in downtown Ithaca, I came across a text that appeared on my radar after being cited in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. (A recommendation of his. Another novelty: book suggestions for which I didn’t have to fake enthusiasm.) The text was The Alchemy of Race and Rights, by the law professor Patricia J. Williams. This meeting, too, was a gift of redirection. I’d anticipated having to work harder to find the book — it hasn’t been reissued since its 1992 publication, and its cover art bears the sins of ‘90s graphic design — but instead I found it waiting for me alone on a shelf, gently used, in the midsummer swelter of upstate New York.

There are many convergences between myself and Williams: we are both black women who considered, but ultimately swerved away from, doctoral work in English to choose the law. We both found problems in this choice. Another convergence: Williams wrote the essay that later grew into Alchemy while attending the School of Criticism and Theory, a summer program that has since moved to Cornell but at that time was at Dartmouth. It was the program in which my partner was enrolled, and my reason for being in Ithaca at all.

The Alchemy of Race and Rights is a text that engages with, mimics, and attacks the law’s form. “Since subject position is everything in my analysis of the law,” the first chapter begins, “you deserve to know that it’s a bad morning. I am very depressed” (3). I was unprepared for such direct address when I opened the book. In the first year of law school, students are enrolled in a mandatory course on Legal Research and Writing. We are trained in the formalized language appropriate for case comments and legal memos, our prose scrubbed of politics or flair in a way that, if you’re not careful, can wreak havoc on the well-made sentence. For Williams, this same neutrality is an insidious fiction. By trying to flatten “the complexity of meaning inherent in any given problem,” legal language, by design, overwrites a swathe of voices.

Like trial by fire, law school promised me purification from all of my precarious artistic strivings; a path along which I would travel at a velocity strong enough to sweep up all of my inconsistent selves.

Though Alchemy was originally intended to be Williams’s escape hatch from the law, its acquisition by Harvard University Press served to pull her back into the legal orbit. While still caught in that orbit myself, the text became a lifeline. It opened up onto modes of thought — critical legal studies, critical race theory, Black Studies — that offered me ways to break through the law’s insistent linearity. It redirected me toward more urgent questions as I began my M.A. thesis, focusing on the ways in which black writing renders spaces that are illegible to the law. It provided me with one way of starting to answer a question I still find mortifying: What do you do, what are your options for agency, if you’ve realized you’re on the wrong track but are committed to staying on until the end of the line? Put another way: what do you do with the bad feelings that fuel your passage past a certain set of obstacles once you’ve renounced the goal that’s supposed to legitimize them?

If you’ve abandoned the idea of legal practice, you’re left with a mix of skills and affects that the profession will tell you is bad currency; among lawyers, common sense is that you don’t go to law school if you don’t want to become one of them. But by the end of second year, I’d read enough critical race theory to know that discontent can be productive.

It is this principle that underlies The Alchemy of Race and Rights, with its division into episodes that purposely lack closure. Each chapter proceeds anecdotally, with Williams relating an incident from her personal life — usually one involving a racist encounter — and extrapolating from the event a series of reflections on race, law, and policy. What emerges is something akin to the case method, but a version that sharpens into both critique and parody by denying the closure endemic to the form. There is no principle to be culled from these episodes, no knowledge that redeems them, and no power in repeating them — only the ritualized exhaustion of existing in the world, and the legal sphere, as a woman of color. In adopting the law’s structure but refusing its closure, Williams steals the law’s own resources to produce a vicious critique of its logic.

My theft of law’s resources took a different form. In collaboration with a like-minded professor, I developed the Race and Law reading group, an interdisciplinary gathering based in the Faculty of Law. Though I sought engagement from students across departments, it felt crucial that the law school be the seat of our conversations. This wasn’t out of any desire to make it look good, but because I wanted to wrench open the gates. Law has a general distaste toward cross-disciplinary thought. The link between program and profession is seen as sacred, as if to expose students to other modes of inquiry might result in a mass defection of future corporate workers to the humanities.

The administration’s response was, frankly, bizarre. Though they were enthusiastic over email and happily fired off messages to the law student mailing lists, they refused — in the form of repeated silence rather than flat-out denial — to post the group description on the departmental website. I hadn’t asked them to forward the message to the student body, but I appreciated the gesture until I realized the group description had been heavily edited, despite retaining my name on it. The most notable omission: the erasure of “first of its kind at the law school” to describe the initiative. The administration wanted to backdate my efforts, implying that such progressive discussions had been going on within the program for some time. One faculty member, when I described my project and rationale — that I was bored with legal reasoning and hungry for more urgent conversations — dismissed it all as “Racism 101,” as though the purpose was the education of my white peers.

Among students, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I amassed a mailing list of over fifty people — most of them law students, despite my interdisciplinary fantasies — nearly thirty of whom RSVP’d to attend. For our first session, I’d chosen a short article by Robin D.G. Kelley — “Black Study, Black Struggle,” from The Boston Review. In the piece, Kelley issues a call for a collective form of study; one that does not see black students framing their institutional critiques in the language of trauma. Kelley considers such use of the personal — and its associated demands for increased diversity and inclusion — to be important, but insufficiently political. Such framing, he contends, merely reinforces the idea of the university as a post-racial haven. In the alternative, Kelley urges students to repurpose the institution’s resources without either accepting or trying to fix its logic.

The session led to a rich conversation, but attendance dropped off steeply in subsequent meetings. It seems important that so many in that group were new law students. Perhaps they came because they needed reassurance, still early in the first fever of case-method inoculation, that there existed other ways to read, and by extension, to exist within the legal sphere. But the radical reformation of legal education or the profession was never the goal. Moreover, to see that as our brass ring would be to fall into the very fallacy that Kelley warns against. As much as I might have wanted to, I couldn’t offer them a way out of the program’s logic, but merely an alternative way of being within it.

Recently, at an academic conference, I met a woman with a tattoo I found vicariously embarrassing — each of the words “theory” and “praxis” inked on opposing inner wrists. More than a poor aesthetic judgment, the body art reminds me of an old polarity into which I don’t want to fall, especially now. The group was not about using reading as a method of avoidance, prioritizing humanistic ambivalence over legal action. It was about the act of reading itself; of carving out space for that act — and doing so collectively — in a faculty so frequently hostile to careful, nuanced thought. For me, this was always enough.

Within both the law school and legal culture at large, the assumption is that a student on the cusp of graduation without an articling position lined up is an unmitigated disaster; one that calls for performative sympathy and immediate action (or, in the case of the career placement office, increasingly anxious emails I’ve taken to ignoring out of spite). The panic makes sense — the tremendous financial barriers to entering law school only approach something resembling reason if they are framed as an investment in a future both specific and secure. All of this makes it hard to answer when I’m asked, “What’s next?” and my response involves more words than a string of surnames signifying the title of a law firm. I have a long-held habit of scanning any question for its subtext — one more thing that would have been an asset as a lawyer, or at least made up for my lack of a legal mind. It’s hard to know what sort of reaction people want me to produce when they make the demand; how best to stage the public break-up with this potential version of my life.

Of all the sensations I thought I’d feel upon finishing — panic, relief, social uselessness — fury wasn’t one of them. Messages from the administration; photos of grad-trip festivities; any kind of congratulation — all spark in me the same diffuse and pointless anger. I find no catharsis in jokes at the expense of lawyers; they make me feel like I was too stupid to notice the warning so visibly nestled in the popular imagination all along. And yet — any regret I might feel, that I do feel, is tempered by my knowledge of how necessary both decisions were; the choice to initiate, then abandon, pursuit of this path. I’ve stopped, or at least I’m trying to stop, being offended when people ask me why I bothered to do the degree in the first place. It’s a fair question; I ask it of myself almost daily. If I were to give something approximating an honest answer, it’s that it would have killed me not to know how the story ended.

* * *

Tajja Isen is a Toronto-based writer and voice actor. Her work has appeared in outlets that include BuzzFeedThe Globe and Mail, Electric LiteratureBitch, and Catapult, where she is also a contributing editor.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

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