Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Roundup: Special Edition

In the spirit of the Sunday Book Roundups, I have put together a few book roundups with some favorite reads from my very recent experience with “generals.”  (At my institution, all second year graduate students read for general, or comprehensive, exams in the spring of their second year and take their written and oral exams in May. Karen has written about her experience with this process herehere, and here.)

For this first post, I want to highlight just a few books that I enjoyed reading. I mean truly reading. Skimming books becomes essential as a Ph.D. student, but these books demand and deserve to be read. 

The first book is Andrew Sandoval-Strausz’s Hotel: An American History (Yale University Press, 2008). This book is not only gorgeous with full color illustrations, but also has superb writing. Hotel traces almost all of American history, starting in 1789 and continuing through Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States in 1964. Sandoval-Strausz argues that the American hotel is “the physical manifestation of a distinctly American vision of mobility, civil society, democracy, and ultimately, space.” (p. 9) I enjoyed his use of hotel hinterlands to map human mobility, his built environment analysis, and his use of hotels to discuss empire in the American West. But more interesting to LHB readers, Sandoval-Strausz’s book weaves together those narratives of hinterlands, entrepreneurs, and travel with the legal history of the law of hospitality. The book has encouraged me to think about the ways in which we can integrate legal history into complex social, cultural, economic, and political narratives and thus understand a single phenomenon better through multiple perspectives. Here’s a review in The New York Times.

James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro (Pantheon, 1994) is another great read. In her review of the book in Law and History Review, Elizabeth Dale calls it a work of Critical Legal History. She writes, “[T]his is no doctrinal or constitutional history. What it is, with a vengeance, is the study of law in practice. Where law on the books appears, as when state laws relating to jury selection become an issue at the trials, it becomes quickly obvious how little statutory mandates dictated the actual workings of the legal system.” Goodman uses a series of short chapters flip the narrative perspective from the black men accused of rape, to their lawyers, to local white officials, to newspaper reporters, and back again. The narrative technique is useful not just for keeping readers engaged, but for demonstrating the multifaceted nature of conflict. Readers might not learn any new “facts” about the “Scottsboro Boys” cases, but they will finish the book with a new understanding of the nature of legal conflict. Dale’s review can be found via JSTOR, and here is an review in The New York Times.

Margot Canaday’s Straight State (Princeton University Press, 2008) was another favorite of mine. I enjoyed reading the book because of the methodical way it works to support its argument. In clear, precise, and infinitely readable prose, Canaday argues that homosexual identity and modern citizenship solidified in tandem with the rise of federal bureaucracy.  “[A]s a national policy of second class citizenship for homosexuals was constructed across the federal bureaucracy, an administrative apparatus dedicated to racial (and sometimes gender) equality was simultaneously being built up over those same years.” (p. 258) Straight State is a must for anyone working on 20th century citizenship, but the book has also been helpful to me in thinking about how to structure argument and ways to approach “state building from the bottom up.” The H-Net review is here, and a review in The Nation can be found here.

In closing, it is worth noting that these masterful works were first books. Certainly something to aspire to.  What works of legal history do you think deserve to be read?