Law and Literature

Here is a break from regular programming.  Every spring, Tyler Cowen of the economics blog Marginal Revolution teaches a class on “Law and Literature” at George Mason University.  He also posts his reading lists.  I like lists and books, so this year I got curious enough to compare the five available lists: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, and a list Dr. Cowen inherited from another professor, also in 2005.

The standouts are the Old Testament (particularly Exodus), Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott, Tolstoy (Hadji Murad and/or Ivan Ilych), Melville (Moby Dick chapters on common law, “Bartleby,” Billy Budd), something called Borges and the Eternal Orangutangs by Fernando Verrissimo, and Blindess by Jose Saramago.

The Art of Political Murder by Fransisco Goldman appeared in 2008 and is back this spring.  Year’s Best SF 9 (stories written in 2003) and Glaspell’s Trifles appeared in 2007 and are back this year as well.  Henry James and Shakespeare appeared in 2005 and 2007 but have since dropped.

The balance of the list (about 30%) turns over every year and includes authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Orhan Pamuk, William Gibson, Eugene Zamiatyin, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eric Ambler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, TH White, Thomas Pynchon, Isaac Asimov, Ha Jin, and PD James.  Dr. Cowen’s colleague relied more heavily on classical and philosopical sources (Plato, Sophocles, More, Milton).  There might be more turnover in the films since a different one is mentioned each year (Sia, Battle Royale, Double Indemnity).

One might add Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, or William Golding to the mix.  But the biggest omission is the New Testament reframing of Mosaic law.  In particular Romans 1-8 and 13-14 are a passionate analysis of the post-Resurrection status of law – by a trained Pharisee no less.

…[I]f it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.  I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of coveteousness.  Apart from the law sin lies dead.

Rom 7:7-8 (NRSV)

Full lists and links are below the break…


  1. The Five Books of Moses, edited and translated by Robert Alter.
  2. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka.
  3. In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.
  4. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, by Leo Tolstoy.
  5. Blindness, by Jose Saramago.
  6. Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, by Fernando Verrissimo.
  7. Billy Budd and Other Tales, by Hermann Melville.
  8. Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville, excerpts, chapters 89 and 90.
  9. The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? By Francisco Goldman.
  10. Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.
  11. Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.
  12. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg.
  13. Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1.
  14. Out: A Novel, by Natsuo Kirino.
  15. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.
  16. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov.
  17. Films including Sia


  1. The Bible, Book of Exodus and later selected excerpts.
  2. Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony.”
  3. Jack Henry Abbott – In the Belly of the Beast
  4. Leo Tolstoy – Great Short Works, including Hadji Murad and Ivan Ilyich
  5. Jose Saramago – Blindness
  6. Fernando Verissimo – Borges and the Eternal Orangutans
  7. Herman Melville, selected stories, including “Bartleby”
  8. Francisco Goldman – The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
  9. J.M. Coetzee – The Life and Times of Michael K
  10. Snow – Orhan Pamuk
  11. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  12. Eugene Zamiatyin – We
  13. Law Lit, by Thane Rosenbaum, selections
  14. Mario Vargas Llosa – Who Killed Palomino Molero?
  15. Films including Battle Royale


  1. Bible, Book of Exodus
  2. Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, translation by Neugroschel
  3. Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast
  4. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, Perennial Library edition
  5. Saramago, Jose, Blindness
  6. Verissimo, Luis Fernando, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans
  7. Moby Dick, excerpts, on the web, the parts of the common law of whaling
  8. Year’s Best SF9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
  9. Glaspell’s Trifles, on the web
  10. J.M. Coetzee, The Life and Times of Michael K
  11. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
  12. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
  13. Ambler, Eric, A Coffin for Dimitrios
  14. Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  15. White, T.H. The Once and Future King
  16. Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis
  17. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
  18. Films including Double Indemnity

2005 (Dr. Cowen)

  1. The Bible, Oxford Study edition
  2. Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories
  3. Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast
  4. Hadji Murad, Tolstoy
  5. Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales
  6. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  7. Shakespeare, King Lear
  8. The Aspern Papers and Other Stories, Henry James
  9. Euthypro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo – Plato
  10. PD James, Innocent Blood
  11. War Trash, Ha Jin
  12. Films: The Widow of St Pierre, Decalogue IV, Capturing the Friedmans, The Sweet Hereafter. Rashomon

2005 (Inherited)

  1. The Bible – Selections from Exodus, Kings I and II-
  2. Kafka, In the Penal Colony from Collected Stories
  3. Melville Billy Budd
  4. Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart
  5. Shakespeare Measure for Measure
  6. Posner Law and Literature
  7. Dissents by Holmes and Frankfurter
  8. Sophocles – Antigone
  9. Plato Apology
  10. More Utopia
  11. Holmes The Common Law
  12. Milton Areopagitica
  13. Twain Pudd’nhead Wilson
  14. Selection from Dostoievsky The Brothers Karamazov
  15. Bertolt Brecht The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  16. Susan Glaspell Jury of Her Peers
  17. Rebecca West, A Train of Powder
  18. Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (selections)

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