Bryan Garner on Words

How to regain the joy of reading

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Photo of Bryan Garner

Photo of Bryan Garner by Terri Glanger

At a law firm retreat, a partner approached me during a break. She had a problem she hoped I could solve: "I can't read anymore. I've lost the ability. I used to read great literature—all the time—but now I can't. Ever since I went to law school, I find myself scouring whatever I'm reading to find what's most relevant. I skim for the main point—as if for a holding. But in literature, it's not there."

"No, it isn't. You say you once read literature voraciously?"

"Yes. Tolstoy. Dostoevsky. Dickens. Woolf. Hardy. I tried the other day to read Jane Austen, but I just couldn't do it. Can you help?"

I doubted that I could. Yet I recognized the syndrome she was talking about—in myself. Sometimes I'll start reading The New Yorker as if it were a typical law report. I have to consciously remind myself to slow down and read every word. Relish the language. Don't rush. Pay attention not just to what's being said but also to how it's being said.

Once I make that mental adjustment, reading becomes pleasurable again—not merely utilitarian.

The affliction that my reader-in-distress so poignantly described probably has three principal causes. The first is that law school entails so much required reading that students who enjoy literature simply lose the habit. There's very little time to spare. They stop reading short stories, novels, poetry and other genres that they may well have read in abundance as undergraduates. And once they habituate themselves to little or no extracurricular reading, they never take it up again.

Second, most legal writing can't be read closely with any sort of gusto. It's clumsy, verbose and studded with irrelevancies that must be skipped (such as 491 U.S. 440, 452; 109 S.Ct. 2558, 2566; 105 L.Ed.2d 377, 389 right in the middle of a paragraph—and often followed by a long parenthetical). Far from being delectable, most pages of legal prose are downright distasteful—and visually repellent as an aesthetic matter. So readers get in the habit of skipping and skimming.

Third, the hurly-burly of law practice can lead you to feel perpetually behindhand. The tyranny of the billable hour only adds to this effect: When the clock is always running, it's easy to start feeling rushed to accomplish something. When it comes to reading, "accomplishing something" may well mean distilling the gist of what you're reading. A chronically impatient reader who feels oppressed by time constraints will rush through—an approach that simply isn't conducive to appreciating literature.

Add those three causes together and you have someone who suffers from the debility that afflicts my reader-in-distress.

Rather than resting on my own explanation, though, I put the question to some well-read friends. A few of them expressed no familiarity with the syndrome. But enough of them recognized it to suggest that it's a real, fairly common malady.


Judge Kevin Ross of Minnesota speculates that the reader-in-distress might have "spent much of her time in law school reading poorly written opinions and being taught mostly if not exclusively the cold, mathematical elements of legal writing." But he has not suffered from the same difficulty: "My experience is just the opposite. I find that I am just as likely (and perhaps even more likely) to pause and appreciate particularly well-crafted phrases and sentences in any writing."

As an undergraduate, he was an English major who focused on creative writing, so for him "the damage was mitigated by a background in creative writing and an early post-law-school awareness that the best legal writing always incorporates strong creative-writing elements."

Law students who never stop reading nonlegal material in law school may benefit from that in the long run. Aimee Furness, for example, a partner at a major Dallas firm, told me: "I still love to read. I read three books for pleasure last week. I constantly suggest to my young associates that they read popular fiction. While I know it's not considered 'excellent writing,' the genius of authors like James Patterson and Harlan Coben is that they write for a general audience, in language anyone can understand. It's that kind of writing and storytelling that can hook a judge and influence him to find for our client. You can become a better writer only through reading."

Judge Gordon J. Quist of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a possible first step toward solving my questioner's problem: "I suggest listening to books for a while. That way, every word is heard and the great sentences and phrases can be savored."

This advice can be taken one step further: reading aloud. That's what Ward Farnsworth suggests. He's an expert on rhetoric and dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. "Good advice is done by ear," Farnsworth says, "so I tell my students to do their reading the same way. You still take in all the meaning when this goes right, but you also notice the rhythms and other sounds of the language. And when you write, and when you read your own writing to yourself, you will have a better sense of what sounds good."

Farnsworth adds: "This is unlike the style of reading that most lawyers do when they search for the holding of a case. Then they are looking, not listening."


Two others suggest that my reader-in-distress purposefully vary her literary diet. Eliot Turner of Houston suggests that she might "start by reading shorter pieces, which will lessen her tendency to speed through things." And he gives a useful reminder: "You don't have to sit down and read War and Peace in a sitting to enjoy reading: Joe Mitchell's stories about characters in New York, or maybe letters between Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, can make for a gonzo afternoon."

Law professor A.E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia School of Law points out that although lawyers may well read cases for what they have to say, "one can read novels, biographies and other books for the insights they offer into life's experience—often for the ideas and emotions that leap off a well-written page, for the sheer pleasure that comes from a good book."

Early in his career, Howard clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black: "Justice Black insisted that I read the classics—Gibbon and Carlyle, Polybius and Tacitus. Not wishing to say no to Justice Black, I read the books he pressed on me. Through those books, I got a glimpse of what made him not only a great legal thinker, but also a consummate master of the English language. Among the many reasons to read great books is that it stifles the impulse to read in general the way one might, in the first-year classroom, read a case."

Another friend, professor Antonio Gidi of the University of Houston Law Center, gives a further explanation for why lawyers might become readers-in-distress: "Lawyers read and write to survive. Lawyers are paid to read, and they have to read all day, every day. They have developed reading skills as a professional tool to obtain a result. If you read for work, it is more difficult to read for pleasure, especially if you work a lot."

That's an interesting take on the problem: "Think of any pleasurable activity," Gidi adds. "If it's done as a profession full time, it will be difficult to do it for fun in your free time. I have a hard time imagining that a fisherman will spend his Sunday on a boat fishing. Lawyers get so desensitized about reading that they derive less pleasure from it than other people do."

There's something to this. When I've spent five or even 10 hours revising others' briefs—as I frequently do—the last thing I want is for someone to hand me a brief to scrutinize. "Look at this when you have a moment, if you will." No, thanks. I do that professionally.

Perhaps the way to cut through this Gordian knot is to differentiate consciously between types of reading. Simply recognize that reading cases is hardly the same as reading literature. Especially with literature, remember to slow down and read for technique as well as for content. The joy isn't so much in what you "get" from the book as it is in the aesthetic experience that you have while reading.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Regaining the Joy of Reading: If it's become a chore, try the techniques of some well-read colleagues."

Bryan A. Garner is the president of LawProse Inc. He is the author of many books and the editor-in-chief of all current editions of Black's Law Dictionary.

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