Recent history is really hard to write well, which is part of why I don’t read very much of it. With events that happened within the last, say, eighty years or so, finding quality, rigorous treatments is difficult. Alternatively, it might be more accurate to say that it is difficult to attain the appropriate perspective. When we are sufficiently removed from history, when it is out of living memory and we are forced to dig into documentation, artifacts, and evidence in order to comprehend what happened, I think that it provides a greater level of intellectual distance that makes writing about it more objective. It helps that those events are usually no longer of direct impact and relevance to us. Yes, we can trace things back through history, cause and effect and correlation and so forth, but that is a very different kind of relevance. Again, it is removed.
It’s why I hesitated for a long time before I read First. Given the choice of title and the context of the writing, I feared that this was going to be a book pushing a definite agenda, like one of those political books that seem so inexplicably popular. Usually, I try to abide by a rule like the one about putting faces on currency: you have to be at least twenty five years dead before I’ll read your biography. Eventually, though, I decided to make an exception, and I did read about Sandra Day O’Connor.
Biographies are amongst my favorite types of histories to read: they emphasize the narrative physics approach to understanding events, they provide a richness of context and detail that is lacking from other approaches, and they help us to take the perspective of someone else. If this had been a history, it would have been a banal, probably polemical piece on how the first woman was appointed to the US Supreme Court. Instead, we get the story of Sandra Day O’Connor, who was so much more than just the first female Justice.
The law has long fascinated me, to the point that I occasionally think that I could have pursued a lawyer career track – after all, I like reading, I like writing, and I like philosophy and civics. Maybe this comes from my long-running fascination with Abraham Lincoln, but I will often seek out excuses to read case law, and I’ve studied many academic and philosophical treatments on what law is and what its role is in society. With my engineering and philosophy backgrounds, I tend to imagine the Supreme Court as the place where law must be reviewed and these philosophies applied. O’Connor took a different approach, one that still leaves me pondering. To her, the law is an evolving means of ordering society that requires practical consideration in both its creation and its implementation. This is rooted in the idea of English Common Law going back to the Magna Carta, and both the idea of “common law” and the Magna Carta might get their own posts eventually.
However, I need to keep in mind that this is a review of a book about O’Connor, and not a review of O’Connor herself, in her role as Justice or any other. Otherwise, we’re liable to end up with lengthy discussions of judicial philosophy and the role of the third branch of government in the US. As a book, I thought First did a good job, for the most part. It was well-researched, and provided a full portrait of O’Connor, not focusing solely on her as a Supreme Court Justice or in any other particular role. Only in two ways do I think it faltered: in its legal analyses, and in the author’s handling of disagreement.
While I don’t want to belittle the author, the book made clear where his talents lie and where they do not. Where they do not lie is in legal analysis. It is probably impossible to write a comprehensive biography of a Supreme Court Justice without digging into at least a little of their jurisprudence, and whenever Thomas did, I found the effort shallow and uninformative. He was interested in sharing the quotable bits with readers, and rarely went deeper than that, though he attempted to pass it off as if he had deeply studied O’Connor’s legal writings. If he had, I think he would have demonstrated a deeper understanding of them.
More subtle, but more damaging, was the way the author would start beating around the bush and adding extra qualifiers whenever O’Connor’s opinions diverged from his own. For instance, O’Connor repeatedly asserted that while she brought a unique perspective to the Court, it was not intrinsic to her being a woman. Barely avoiding coming out and saying so directly, Thomas makes it very clear that he both disagrees with and disapproves of that perspective. He’s perfectly within his rights to have that opinion and to include it in his book, but I do not think that sort of approbation and judgement belongs in a biography, and I stand by my right to write this critique. And yes, I realize that it is impossible to fully remove our biases and be completely objective and non-judgmental when we do anything, but that does not make it a goal towards which it is not worth striving, especially when presenting something that is intended as “nonfiction.”
As long as you keep these things in mind, I recommend you read this book. Sandra Day O’Connor’s life is a thought-provoking story in its own right, and takes place in the context of fascinating decisions and occurrences that have shaped and continue to shape the world in which we live. I’m glad that I made an exception to my twenty five year rule for First.