Books interview: Deborah L. Rhode

The eminent legal scholar on Simone de Beauvoir, the trouble with lawyers, female friendship and living unhappily ever after

March 31, 2016
Author Deborah L. Rhode, Stanford University, Center on the Legal Profession

What kind of books captivated your interest when you were very young?
As a child, I was particularly drawn to biography. Stories about people who nudged the world in a progressive direction were my favourites; Albert Schweitzer is a typical example.   

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I have been giving my women friends a wonderful book by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown, The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship. Women’s friendship has been so critical to the quality of life for so many women, and it’s inspiring to read about its historical roots and current contributions.

The subject of your new book, Adultery: Infidelity and the Law, plays a key role in many works of fiction. Have you a favourite?
Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and The Scarlet Letter are classics in the adultery genre and illustrate the traditional theme: no one lives happily ever after.

Are there any legal scholars whose work has changed your perspective on the law?
Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice (1976) sent me to law school. It is a gripping account of the early civil rights struggle in America, and many of its heroes were lawyers. It persuaded me that law was the most promising way to nudge American society in a better direction. After some three decades as a legal academic, I am still hopeful that at least in this culture, I am training and writing for a profession that has an enormous capacity to do good in the world.

Can you recommend a good general interest book on lawyers’ role in civil society?
My own recent book The Trouble with Lawyers has a rich bibliography, but the one I would particularly recommend is Benjamin Barton’s Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession, which examines how the market for legal services is changing and why some of the changes are good for the public, if not the profession.

Lawyers and legal scholars are required to read, absorb, recall and synthesise huge amounts of written text of all kinds. Have you any advice to (aspiring) scholars or other readers about how to cope with such a large volume of reading?
The rise of the internet has been both a curse and a blessing. It is increasingly easy to find a wide range of material relevant to any research question, and increasingly difficult to process it all. If you are writing about current events, as I do, it’s especially challenging to keep pace with moving targets and the ever-evolving social media. I don’t have any counterintuitive coping mechanisms. At some point, you simply need to declare victory and move on.  

Are there any works of feminist thought that you found particularly inspiring?
A book that changed my life was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I can still remember reading it in Yale’s central library in the early 1970s and suddenly seeing the world in a different way. My parents’ relationship, my own relationship with a fellow student, the gendered terrain of the campus (which had only just co-educated) suddenly took on new meaning. It’s a classic that is still worth a read. I also recommend Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Although critics have justly challenged its inattention to racial, class and structural issues, it is still a quite useful and readable account of what creates an unequal playing field for professional women and what can help to change it.

What recent scholarly books outside your own discipline have you found especially valuable?
Kathleen Dolan’s When Does Gender Matter? traces the declining role of sex stereotypes in US politics, and Kelly Dittmar’s Navigating Gendered Terrain explores the way those stereotypes continue to influence political campaigns. Both books help to put the current US presidential campaign in context.

You have a number of monographs to your credit. Which of them are you proudest of?
I am reluctant to name a favourite, but the book that taught me the most about myself and my own profession was In Pursuit of Knowledge (Stanford University Press, 2006), It surveys challenges facing universities and their inhabitants, and was a great excuse to include humour and accounts from satirical novels about academic life.

Is there a recent work of fiction that really impressed you?
I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. It’s not a light read, but he’s a terrific writer and it’s richly rewarding.

Deborah L. Rhode is Ernest W. McFarland professor of law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford University, and author of Adultery: Infidelity and the Law (Harvard University Press).

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