Monday, October 29, 2007

Recent Reading

Both of these reviews are a bit long so I posted them behind a cut. Today, I discuss:
1) Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History by Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson
2) The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffery Toobin

1) Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History by Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson. This is a very interestingly structured book. The text is an intriguing combination of organic chemistry and history. It looks at various chemicals and how their chemical structure, availability and commercialization changed human history. Some of the chemicals discussed have been long acknowledged to impact history like salt, cellulose or cloves/pepper. But there were also sections on Oleic Acid (Olive Oil), "The Pill" and the chemistry of Witchcraft accusations. Thankfully, the chemistry is presented in a fairly straightforward manner; it’s nothing beyond what you would see in an AP Chemistry course. And the history is full of interesting facts and characters, some more well-known than others.

The chapters included little historical asides that provided greater context for certain historical events. One fact of particular interest to me was that many women convicted as witches may have really believed that they participated in dark rituals because of hallucinogenic nature of several commonly used herbal remedies. Another point in the book’s favor, the authors went to great lengths to demonstrate the fine line between usefulness and toxicity for a chemical. They discussed many of the trade-offs in using one chemical versus another and provided some good historical context for why chemicals now banned were once considered life-saving. On the whole, I thought this was a balanced, well-presented and entertaining look at the effect of chemistry on human history.

2) The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffery Toobin. Who says law is boring? This easy-to-read book covers the last twenty or so years of the Supreme Court history. It provides wonderful insight into the personalities, egos and politics surrounding the Court’s recent decisions. While I think it’s important to understand Supreme Court justices are real people with real lives, Toobin does a good job of embracing their eccentricities while showing the consequences of their all-too human mistakes.

Another nod in the author's favor is he succeeds in fairly portraying the complexity of certain decisions while still not leaving much doubt about the author’s opinions. For instance, I think Toobin has a little bit of a crush on Sandra Day O’Conner but doesn’t think much of Clarence Thomas. Interestingly, Scalia for all his strict constructionism and combative behavior got a much more favorable presentation. It doesn’t hurt that Scalia is a bit of a cut-up (seriously, this book had several LOL moments, mainly due to his quotes). The only downside for me was the focus on two points about the modern Court that disturb me:

(1) Certain justices becoming enamored with international legal precedents. While I’m not totally opposed to the idea, the international community is much more statist, collectivist and leftist than the US. I do not believe the United States would be well-served to duplicate those aspects of international law. Also important, most countries lack anything like the Bill of Rights which imposes quite specific restrictions on how governements can interfere with individual liberty. Using case law from both Britain and the EU especially has this flaw as both lack written constitutions. Accepting precedents from either ignores the lower burden-of-proof required for change in both legal systems. The issue of the death penalty is one area in particular where, even with the flaws in our process, I think the US has a proper stance.

(2) Modern Legal thought has such a weird focus on the abortion issue. I know it’s a really big deal in political circles and no book discussing conservatives’ relationship to the Court could ignore it. But this issue just seems like a big deal out of nothing to me. My opinion of abortion is that it is morally wrong but it should be legal. So while I would never get one myself, I don’t want it to be banned outright either. As far as I’m concerned while Roe v. Wade was a poorly-constructed decision*, it got us to a more reasonable place in terms of the law. The whole focus in selecting both Justices Roberts & Alito was on abortion. This struck me as unsound and more than a little off-putting regarding how the Republican party makes decisions on social issues. Alito’s previous opinions especially came off as mindlessly dogmatic to the point of willful ignorance about how spousal content might relate to domestic violence issues.

Neither of these two points were covered unfairly by the author. Although, I thought Toobin glossed over the reasons why people would be opposed to using international precedents in Supreme Court cases. The abortion issue was presented much more fairly. In the end, I would recommend this book as interesting and informative. Only I don’t think it will necessarily make you feel better about decision-making in the upper levels of the United States government.

*Based on the analysis of someone who took "Constitutional Law" as her second government elective requirement in college (ie - no expert).

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