Note to readers: This is a part of a series of questions and answers with Lawrence Friedman. If you have a question you've wanted to ask him, please post it in a comment, or email me.
Question -- from Dan Ernst:
A History of American Law, American Law in the Twentieth Century and Crime and Punishment in American History that you didn’t get from writing monographs, such as Contract Law in America or The Roots of Justice? Any advice for others contemplating writing a synthetic work?
Answer from Lawrence:
I was very young-- or what I now think was very young-- when I started to work on A History of American Law; and maybe it was a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. I wanted to do something new, something that hadn't been done before. This was, of course, a work of synthesis; but frankly there wasn't that much to synthesize, and I had to do a lot of digging and looking in primary sources. Today the literature is bursting at the seams, so a work of synthesis to a certain extent needs a different technique. Not necessarily easier. If nobody had written on a subject before, it was OK for me to make wild guesses. Now that is harder.
We need works of synthesis of course; but for anybody who wants to work in legal history, a monograph, an intense work with sources, a study that excavates buried cities, is something you need to do-- first, to establish your credentials, and more important, to teach you what it is like to do this kind of research. But I suppose that those of us who go into this field must love to do research; must love the excitement of uncovering something new, of looking at a record nobody saw before, of opening doorways that have been sealed shut and overgrown and forgotten.
Advice for potential synthesizers? First, know what you're getting into. It's harder than it looks. Second, what you are really doing is trying to interpret the meaning of whole masses of studies and whole ziggurats of data. You have to look for the general that is lost in a maze of particulars. You need dogged determination, and above all a vivid imagination. But not too vivid, I hope. And you need modesty too. You can't read everything, you can't know everything, and there's no sense even trying.