Should Lawyers Read Novels?


This is an abridged version of a talk, given by Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, Vice-Chair, Advocacy Committee, Law Society of Singapore, at Edu-Dine on 21 September 2001.

When the hemlock was being prepared for Socrates, he busied himself by learning a melody on his flute. 'What use will that be to you?' he was asked. 'At least I will learn this tune before I die', he replied.

A life planned according to what is useful - the best means to the most prosperous ends - is a life lacking in significance. Meaning must be sought in what we do, not what we aim for. When we are young, we read because we are told to do so, by parents or teachers. To read from duty and not love makes it a chore, yet this early reading is still important. Reading required by teachers or parents gives us, in time, the tools with which we learn finally to truly love books, to comprehend at last how books echo through the ages, how they joust with each other: raising a shout that we can hear even above the din of contemporary life, the banality of everyday existence. Books read in our youth are supremely formative. They give us scales of reference and introduce us to characters and the thoughts of others. In this way, we gain insight into the workings of people and society.

Having made it clear that literature's value is intrinsic and not instrumental, I will nonetheless offer some reasons why lawyers in particular should keep reading novels. In so doing, I will not succumb to the Singaporean habit of defining to death any proposition: I will not offer you the seven types of lawyers - ranked according to habits and propensities. Nor will I recite the 17 types of novels - ordered according to genre, tradition and geography. Still less will I point out various meanings of the word 'should' - political, social, cultural or personal.

There are five reasons why lawyers should read novels.

The first two are matters of form. Firstly, reading novels helps build the skills of telling stories and painting verbal pictures. Secondly, reading novels also aids precision and concision - thus assisting one's mastery of the art of the short and simple question that is so essential to effective examination and cross-examination.

The third and fourth are matters of substance. Novels are not just, nor even primarily, about well-crafted sentences or evocative language. Novels speak of characters, and by aiding the understanding of characters helps us to understand clients, opponents, witnesses and, indeed, judges. Novels typically involve puzzles, solving mysteries or discerning plots, and so hone our skills of deconstruction so necessary in getting the story out of a client or witness.

My fifth and last reason is that reading novels is an essential part of living in society. An individual's sense of himself is shaped and defined in his interaction with others. Alone, in solitude, personality dissolves. That was the crisis of the spirit faced by Tom Hanks in Castaway. In our relations with others, the telling of stories is critical. 'How was your day dear?' sparks a re-telling designed not to repeat but to inform and entertain. The process of memory is bound up with telling stories. The formation of the self is itself a type of narrative. The same applies to societies and nations. Storytelling is not an optional extra, something to do when your material needs are met. In fact, under conditions of great stress, storytelling may become all the more important as a way to seek comprehension - recent novels from Vietnam, such as those by Bao Ninh and Duong Thu Huong, bear testimony to this - unequivocally great literature forged out of the terrible trauma of war.

So let me elaborate on my five reasons.

Every time a lawyer drafts an affidavit or presents a submission, he is telling someone's story. He must try to capture the voice of the person whose story he is telling. He must try to present a picture of the world as that person would see it. This is especially important where the client has little education. He may see the world completely differently from how you or the judge (educated and sensible like yourself) would do so.

I encourage advocates to try to use language to achieve more persuasive but accurate descriptions. Don't just rely on stock phrases or jargon. How about this as a scene setter for submissions on the difficulty a witness might be under in making a proper identification:

There is someone looking through the befogged glass ... everything is misty inside ... as if seen by near-sighted eyes or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences. It is a rainy evening. [Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller]

Isn't that a lot crisper and more compelling than saying: 'Given circumstances of rain, exhaust emissions and an intervening glass panel, this court should place little weight on the relevant identification evidence'.

My second reason relates to the crafting of questions. In any jurisdiction, questions must be short, simple and precise. In Singapore, because the tribunal notes question by hand and witnesses differ in their degree of fluency in English, this is all the more important. I strongly recommend to advocates that they work hard at getting the form of questions right. A precisely worded question is the principal tool of what I regard as the most frequently effective method of cross-examination - the eliciting of admissions from witnesses based on what logic must compel them to agree to. Consider this series of questions and answers from that master of concision, Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa:

Q: Do you think your writing is worth doing - as an end in itself?
A: Oh, yes.
Q: You are sure?
A: Very sure.
Q: That must be very pleasant.
A: It is, I said. It is the one altogether pleasant thing about it.

My third reason for lawyers reading novels is the insight it gives us into character. Novels are not the only way of getting such insight, of course. One may take courses in psychology or just learn from experience. But novels give you an enjoyable way of extending your own experience. And novels have themselves an effect; not only do we recognise characters in novels, but sometimes characters in novels come to define and influence how people behave in real life. A simple example of this is how the Western, with its stock characterisations of heroes and villains, came to influence Americans' perceptions of themselves and their history. This gave Americans positive models of heroism and justice which influence the behaviour of individual Americans even today. Kipling did much the same for the British Empire.

But let me suggest another example. Say you are a divorce lawyer, you need to understand why your client has strayed from her apparently successful husband who provided for her material needs and seemed on the whole to adore her. Well, my advice is read Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Tolstoy's Anna Karenin. Then you can see how dull worthiness can destroy a marriage.

My fourth reason is that novels usually involve puzzles of one sort or another. I'm not talking just about 'who-dunnits'. Almost any novel will employ some mystery or other as a device to entice the reader to keep reading. Perhaps a mystery about what happened in the past or perhaps the puzzle of how the plot will resolve itself in the future. Unlocking the novel is a similar process to what we do as litigators. Confronted with your clients' often confused recollections, the statements of the party on the other side and a set of contemporaneous documents, we must somehow work out what really happened. And in presenting our case to the judge, we must try to get the judge hooked on solving the mystery as you see it. A good advocate may have worked out a complete theory of the case, yet in his exposition he may leave a few pieces to be worked out by the judge. This helps to intrigue the tribunal, and as the tribunal works things out for itself, it invests its own authority in your client's case.

Now to illustrate the importance of my fifth reason about reading novels as part of engagement in society, I shall outline some of the interesting ways in which writers in Singapore have written about national obsessions or been themselves marked by national characteristics. I shall talk about three things: food, ghosts and youth.

Singaporeans live for and love food. The Bar Rooms of High and Subordinate Courts, the corridors outside Registrars' Chambers, the Raffles Place offices of smart corporate lawyers: all of these places buzz with talk of the best eating places, the latest restaurants. Rex Shelley's The Shrimp People is about a young Eurasian girl, growing up in the years around Independence. She is almost tricked by her Indonesian lover into betraying Singapore during the Confrontation. At a moment of crisis she asks herself: 'And for lunch, "siew yok"! Or "babi tauyu"? "Mui chin"? Or "Swee Kee"? Would Hartono ever learn to enjoy pork if I broke him in gently?' In the end, food trumps romance and she betrays her Indonesian lover instead. Sometimes our need to eat well is gently mocked, as in this passage from Simon Tay's Iris's Rice Bowl: 'Angie dipped the chicken heavily into the saucer of chilli. Thirty-one and still getting pimples but she can't resist the things which are bad for her. She says it and then spoons in the fragrant, oily rice. Hope it stops before the wrinkles come. Angie can always make me laugh. It's as if her tongue's made hot and sharp by the chilli she loves.'

Nowhere else can one find so many ghosts from so many traditions. It is a triumph of multi-culturalism that 'pontianak' and hungry ghosts, poltergeist and tree spirits can co-exist so peacefully. Hundreds of stories have been written and devoured in such popular series as the books by Russell Lee (who himself has two separate manifestations) and the Nightmare series. One particularly Singaporean theme is the role of ancestors - whether in triggering curses on their descendants or doing haunting of their own. In Goh Sin Tub's delightful and breezily written tale, The Curse of Hai Leng Ong, Mei is haunted by the fear that her husband will turn out to be the King of the Sea. That royal creature of the sea had once rescued her grandfather from a watery grave in return for the hand in marriage of one of his female offspring. A young girl on the cusp of womanhood, she rejects numerous otherwise good matches. Finally, she is released from the curse by her half-brother, who as a transvestite picks up a sailor in Bugis Street. Many ghost stories are gentle evocations of a superstitious past, a nod to our ancestors as Singapore modernises. Many are set at wakes, and it is almost as if with the passing of an older generation ghosts too will depart.

Writers start young in Singapore. Young people write autobiographies. These sell in thousands. Perhaps they capture the Singaporean sense of a life and a world that lies before us: a nation in the future. Of all these youthful memoirs, perhaps the most original and candid is Bonny Hicks' book, Excuse Me, Are you a Model?, written when she was only 20 years old. Love affairs and personal insecurities, private fears and public enthusiasms are described with disarming charm. Some were scandalised by its frankness, but it found a large and devoted readership. Hicks' writing was strong and confident, much as Singapore has become. She ended her memoir with the promise of an adventurous future: 'In life, anything's possible. After all, I never wanted to be a model.'

Go out and read books by Singaporeans, for doing so helps us to understand our society and the people around us.

Now, I will conclude. I have listed five reasons for lawyers to read novels: (a) to help us in our word-craft when telling stories or asking questions; (b) to improve our understanding both of people and situations; and (c) to engage us in society. But I will finish with a sixth reason. Reading takes us into the heads of people whom we might never meet. People perhaps of a different century or country. In this way, we gain insight and understanding into times and places very different from our own. One of my favourite literary traditions is the Middle Eastern. From the Arabian Nights to modern day masters like Amin Malouf or Orhan Pamuk. In times like this, when the trust between nations and peoples is under threat, knowledge and understanding of other people's traditions is all the more important. It helps us to distinguish the book-makers from the bomb-makers and to remember that we must reach out to the one even as we condemn the other.