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Tajja Isen

On Not Being Able to Read

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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. Read more…