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A Holiday Gift Recommendation: America's Constitution: A Biography, By Akhil Reed Amar


Friday, Dec. 23, 2005

If you are still searching for a last-minute holiday gift for a friend or a relative--or are simply looking to treat yourself this season--I recommend buying a new book entitled America's Constitution: A Biography. Full disclosure: the book's author is my brother, Akhil Reed Amar.

With a nod to David Letterman, here are the top ten reasons for my recommendation:

Reason Number 10. Books are great gifts. If you read a book and then give it to someone else who reads it, it can create an amazing conversational bond between you--in part because books can change how you think and even who you are.

Reason Number 9. Akhil knows his stuff. Did I mention that he is my brother? Family pride aside, Akhil is widely recognized as one of the nation's leading scholars of the Constitution--of the text, history, and structure of the document itself, as distinct from the Supreme Court case law interpreting the document (sometimes quite loosely). Akhil was one of the youngest persons at Yale Law to be given an endowed chair. In both law reviews and Supreme Court case law, he is cited widely. He has testified before Congress many times, and at the invitation of both Republicans and Democrats. His last book on constitutional law--the Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction--was well received by lawyers, judges, historians, legal scholars, and general readers. (For example, historian Eric Foner hailed it as "a major contribution to the history of American liberties." Last year, Akhil was named by Legal Affairs magazine as one of America's Top 20 Legal Thinkers. (The other full-time academics on the list: Erwin Chemerinsky, Alan Dershowitz, Richard Epstein, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, Laurence Tribe, and Eugene Volokh.)

Reason Number 8. The book is chock-full of original scholarship. On almost every page, there is some interesting constitutional idea/fact/insight that will come as news even to many experts in the field. (Akhil tells me that--even after nearly twenty years teaching Constitutional Law at Yale -- he himself learned a vast amount in the writing and researching of the book.) His aim is nothing less than to provide a comprehensive account of the entire written Constitution, from the Preamble to the most recent amendment.

Reason Number 7. You don't have to be a lawyer to appreciate and enjoy the book. Despite its depth and nuance, this book is written for a general audience, including practicing lawyers, law students, undergraduates, and just about anyone else interested in serious nonfiction. Fair warning: It is a big book--over 450 pages of text, with lots of additional reference materials in the endnotes.

Reason Number 6. Check out the reviews. Here's what others have said about the book. Larry Tribe calls it "brilliant," and "breathtakingly informative. . . . What David McCullough is to John Adams, . . . Akhil Amar is to the Constitution." Alan Dershowitz proclaims the book "wonderful" and "indispensable" and says that Akhil "writes like Jefferson, thinks like Madison, and speaks like Lincoln." Jeff Toobin labels it "gripping"--a "powerful narrative as well as an indispensable research tool." Reviewing the book in the Washington Post, novelist/lawyer Scott Turow describes it as "elegantly written" and "an uncommonly engaging work of scholarship" that "I expect to be taking . . . off my shelf for years to come as an indispensable reference." Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jack Rakove added his own words of admiration in a recent review in The Nation, and inside sources tell me that another favorable review by another prize-winning historian will be appearing later this year. True, not all the major reviews have been as amazingly superlative as the ones I have just quoted, but each one has been, on balance, positive -- no mean feat in a field as contentious as constitutional interpretation.

Reason Number 5. The book offers one-stop shopping for readers who want to understand the Constitution as a whole. Although there are a vast number of thoughtful books in print about one or another aspect of the Constitution--about, say, judicial review or free speech or presidential powers--there are precious few addressing the Constitution as a whole. By contrast, America's Constitution illustrates how each part of the document fits into a larger picture, and also explains how the document has changed dramatically over the centuries, thanks to the amendment process. It's also worth noting that there are very few constitutional books that truly integrate law, history and political science in the way that this book does.

Reason Number 4. There's safety in numbers. Although the book has been in print for only three months, it is already in its sixth printing, and has been selling well. Very few serious law books ever reach a broad general audience: So even if you don't believe me or the reviewers, trust your fellow American book lovers. In late September, the History Book Club featured America's Constitution as a Main Selection (alongside Doris Kearns Goodwin's A Team of Rivals) and C-SPAN recently broadcast a seventy-five- minute segment on Akhil's book based on a bookreading/Q&A session at a DC bookstore.

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Reason Number 3. The book cites my own work often. Just kidding - this is really only a reason for me to buy it, and I already have. But on a more serious note, and this one will matter to all readers, the book incorporates the best cutting-edge scholarship on constitutional issue after constitutional issue. Readers who were interested in the topics that appeared in my previous Findlaw columns (some of which were co-written with Akhil) will doubtless be interested in the topics covered in Akhil's book as well.

Reason Number 2. Akhil cuts across the liberal/conservative divide. Like many conservatives, Akhil takes constitutional text and history seriously, but he often sees rather different--more liberal--lessons in these sources. The result is a work that transcends many stale ideological debates, with points that will alternately delight and provoke members both of the Federalist Society on the right, and of the American Constitutional Society on the Left. Writing in The New York Times, James Ryerson refers to Akhil as "a liberal originalist" whose book is, in "a time of maddening political polarity, refreshingly hard to categorize."

Reason Number 1. Did I mention the author is my brother? But even if he weren't I'd still recommend this enthusiastically. Happy holidays.

Vikram David Amar is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. He is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author of the Cohen and Varat constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

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