13 November 2013

Some Thoughts On Reading

This post offers some thoughts about reading and what law students may do to make it easier. Think about the author's purpose before you read anything. Doing so will make it easier to find where, how, and if the author reaches any goals. The easier it is to find these three things, the easier it will be to understand the text. The more you understand, the easier it is to analyse, criticise, and synthesise.

1. Format and Purpose

If you consider why authors write, you may find your purpose in reading is clarified by the subject matter and nature of the text--which was written with some goal in mind. The next four sub-sections explore four types of legal writing and their purposes.

1.1 Case Law

Judges write cases to record decision-making. Those decisions aim to clarify the law. Words in cases are chosen and arranged for persuasiveness, formula, and procedure. Cases are focussed: judges are reluctant to consider anything that is not directly pertinent to the question at hand. (See eg Lord Hope's lecture, 'Writing Judgments', and my analysis of that lecture.)

1.2 Textbooks and Casebooks

These are written for different reasons than cases. The author's role is to exposit cases, statutes, and other sources in a detailed overview and add a little criticism to the field. Such books are designed to be starting points for further research and to aid initial comprehension. (See eg Professor Alastair Hudson's vidcast to explain why he wrote Law of Finance.)

1.3 Journal Articles

These are intended to present an author's research into (usually) narrow topics. Individual cases or principles are considered in detail. Recent developments and their histories are examined in articles. Journals provide a forum for shorter monographs: articles may cover similar material as text books; authors choose the most appropriate format for publication--book or article--which is usually determined by word count or breadth.

1.4 Blogs

Generally, I suppose, blogs are written because the format allows for continual, short publication. The format demands less than others where, eg, printing costs matter. Blogs therefore allow less serious topics to be discussed--or more serious topics in a more relaxed style. Legal blogs, says Jean d'Aspremont, compliment traditional publication routes (see his interview on this subject).

2. Seeking Purpose

With these short analyses in mind, I will say a few words about searching for authors' purposes when you read.

2.1 Case Law

The point in reading cases is to find what judges say the law is. Knowing this, first consider what question(s) the judge aims to answer. What is the dispute about? What do the parties want?

While reading search for two things:
  1. The judges' answers; and
  2. The judges' processes and methods.
In my experience, to hold these questions in my mind will make the answers stand out.

2.2 Textbooks and Casebooks

The point in reading textbooks is to understand how topics and subjects fit together and work holistically. Introductions tend to explain what will happen through the book. Conclusions tend to summarise the key ideas. So read introductions and conclusions first. Then read the book (or relevant chapter(s)) straight through. This, in my experience, helps that holistic overview build up easier than if the book is read chronologically from cover to cover.

2.3 Journal Articles

The point in reading journal articles is to delve more thoroughly into ideas, topics, subjects, and principles that you pass in your other reading. As articles are (normally) so precise, the ideas expressed in them may not help overall comprehension or to elucidate similar ideas. Therefore a critical approach is favourable:
  1. Read introductions to find out if the article preliminarily sounds relevant to your research;
  2. Read conclusions next to find out if the author's ending reflects what the introduction suggests is the article's content;
  3. If the article is still relevant, skim the whole thing to get an idea of structure and discover where the most relevant parts are;
  4. Read those parts with care.

2.4 Blogs

The point to reading blogs, perhaps, is to find comments on developments so recent that printed media has not yet had time to respond. As blogs' rigour is difficult to determine, be critical of their content and ensure any claims are verified if you reference them.

3. Conclusion

Reading is arduous. The time it takes will feel wasted if you finish a text and still feel lost about its content. This is less likely to happen if you first consider the writer's purpose. So before you read anything, consider its format and why the author chose it. This will indicate where certain ideas are written, make them easier to find and understand, and speed up the reading process by suggesting the fastest route to them.

Created: 13 November 2013. Version 1.0.

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