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Bite the Nickel

I should plead guilty to the charge of liking Michael Connelly’s novels. [1] I have not read all of them. My first was The Poet, a 1996 novel I read in 2006. Of the four novels he wrote before 1996, I accidentally read The Concrete Blonde. I have also read most of his post-2006 novels, and followed his production very closely after 2008. Therefore, I am an amateur reader of Mr Connelly’s novels, but I am very far away from being a real pro. If Mr Connelly died before me -which is a toss-up these days, especially considering that he is only nine years older than me- or stopped writing for good, whichever occurs first, I might then go back to his whole literary production, like an archeologist, or like a literary historian. But while he is productive -and I hope he will be for many years-, I will enjoy what I happen to enjoy now: his contemporariness, his agile response to vibrant events and cases, his ability to incorporate as natural elements of his novels objects, cultural artifacts, language, and technologies that are still so surprisingly new to most of us. [2]

Perhaps it would also be appropriate to say that Michael Connelly is not the best writer I have ever read. Of course, this is merely subjective. I measure my own writers’ pecking order by only one single parameter: how sublime they are. Sublime, here, means only what Longinus meant when he said that sublime discourses where those that one could not forget, for “… a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness [3] of a lightning flash.” Hence, in my chart of sublime thoughts happily timed that illumine etc., etc., I normally put a host of poets -some of whom are right now traveling with me-, and some novelist, musicians, and so on and so forth. Mr Connelly has rarely been in that very intimate list, and nevertheless, I seem to be writing about him in this precise moment. It even seems that -considering what I am about to write-, there would be a case to include him among those writers.

Is this any important? Probably not. In particular because, despite the title and the content of this post, I am still working on my book-length project, The Law Scrappers, and I will be talking about it indeed.

Some of Mr Connelly’s books I have read, I have read them in their kindle edition. Kindle reading looks to me like reading on a manuscript. You think that you possess the book and its newness. You also think that you are reading it privately in your own bed, or I your own couch, or in your own train, or in your own beach, or in any other of your own spaces for reading. [4]

This is, however, only an illusion. What is really happening is that you are reading a used book that somebody else thinks that she possesses, both the book and its newness. She also thinks that she is reading it in her own bed, or in her own couch, etc. [5] While you are reading, you are also watching somebody else evolving through her reading, just like in an old manuscript of the Divina Commedia held in the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid […], marks, notes,underlining, highlights, obeli, and asteri, are growing around the text as you read, as she reads.

The kindle book is always elsewhere and here at the same time. It changes beyond your control. Of course, you can always turn off the stress of parallel readings and stop eavesdropping altogether. By the same token, you can turn on your own private reading, so that none of your notes and marks can be leaked for the satisfaction of the argos of online lurkers. I don’t like disclosing my reading notes and highlights, but, for the life of me, I would be utterly unable to turn off the world of readers that burgeons everywhere around the kindle book that I consider my own.

Everything surrounding this kindle reading makes completely right the ideas about the ethical reading (Mary Carrruthers) and the ethics of reading (John Dagenais). Readers are looking all the time for ethical advice and confirmation. Furthermore, when they enter their kindle profile, they find out that their florilecture has actually produced, effortlessly, a florilegium containing, book by book, page by page, an anthology of maxims, dicta, sentences, exemplary cases, and so on. Kindle readers perhaps do not read in fits and starts (really, it is not easy to do it when you lack the memory of your hands, the volume of the pages, the relative chance offered by the separation between quires, the interplay between even and odd pages, etc.), but they still flower around their treasure trove of sayings that are useful for an everyday moral practice. It would be just as easy to explore whether their tropological, appartently surface reading, is matched by some sort of ulterior reflection, perhaps anagogical, perhaps political, perhaps spiritual, perhaps…

I wonder whether what I would call a legal reading is also a sort of ethical reading. It may well be. If it is, it serves very different purposes. Mr Connelly’s kindle readers seem to be very concerned with this legal reading. Legal reading include many different expressions of legal knowledge. Piotr Görecki, in his work about medieval Poland, defines legal knowledge as a particular kind of memory of legal transactions. I would probably add that legal knowledge is also about another kind of memory -one that includes, above all, the legal expressions that conceal and unveil very obscure procedures taking place within the system of justice. Knowing those expressions and technicalities gives the user a singular sensation of power, enabling the layperson with an extraordinary new tool of unpredictable usefulness in many different spaces including the court of justice, and the conversations and negotiations with the legal professionals. Legal reading producing this sort of legal knowledge is perhaps one of the reasons whereby court movies and tv-shows are so popular: they provide the watchers with an incredible amount of legal expressions repeated over and over again, and that produce the illusion of getting it alright, without the necessity of spending a number of years in law school. The argument could very easily be inverted, in order to posit that by producing this illusion of legal knowledge, the superstructures are in fact concealing the real legal knowledge of the actual professionals from the reach of laypersons. This, then, would look like a very insidious reading of Bourdieu’s ideas about the legal champ social and its production of méconnaissance.

So, when I read Mr Connelly’s books on my kindle edition, I see how the other readers highlight the little pieces of legal knowledge. Mr Connelly is very careful about the ways he produces such legal knowledge. He has been a court journalist, a profession from which he derives some of his research strategies. Plus he has good connections at the LAPD as well as in many a court of justice. He is careful about the way he uses the relevant argot, and how he explains it, giving thus, with this combination, a pearl of legal knowledge. For instance, there are, in his novels, some characters that bite the nickel. Right after using this sentence, the narrator explains that this is an expression used in courts of justice that works as a colloquial utterance for “plead the fifth amendment”, according to which no person will be forced to make a declaration that could incriminate him or herself. The combination produces a great piece of knowledge: the argot expression, easily remembered and used, short and popular, is the reactive from which blooms the fifth amendment in its literality. This is just one case that comes to my mind, but there are many other. I would only need to enter my own kindle florilegium to find other examples, a whole lot of them. I simply do not feel like doing it right now.

Let me move again to the Middle Ages. No matter how important was the increase in literacy during the 13th century, it still left aside the immense majority of individuals -juridical persons, after all, and brand new ones, as Yan Thomas demonstrated in some of his genial pieces of scholarship. The same immense majority to which the laws were saying: never mind how fast you are able to run, you cannot escape the force of the law. The law proclaimed that all individuals were juridical persons, as well as subjects of the law. But what did they all know about the law? Of course, they knew a number of very important things, of which they were frequently reminded by different systems of communications -including the church, or the marketplace. The law, however, is also made out of language. Not only the language of the rules, but as well, and perhaps principally, the language of the transactions. [6] This language is pretty special. In it, sentences like “bite the nickel” (yes, I know it is not an actual legal formula) does not mean that you have to take a five-cent coin and crush it under your teeth -even if the resulting effect is the same, namely that you cannot speak while you are doing it. Likewise, in this language, the verb “to sell” does not only mean that you exchange one object, or a good, or a commodity, against an established amount of money. It also means that the good you are subjecting to that exchange ceases to be a part of your body, in order to become a part of the body of the person acquiring it from you. You do not just sell, you both disembody the good from yourself, and embody it to somebody else. This complex transaction is explained within the documents signed by people from different social levels during the late Middle Ages. The pertinent and relevant formula became, by means of the documents and their copies, available to those shepherds, and millers, and bakers involved in those transactions. If they practiced legal reading at all, they would have probably underlined or otherwise highlighted the pertinent formulae as elements of language that produce legal knowledge. Most of the times, they had an officer to do the legal reading for them. This is also an important part of my Law Scrappers.

This is pretty evidently pure speculation. We only have a slight glimpse on how people felt about that through a series of paratextual interventions like some dorsal notes on the documents or like notes about why and how a given document was copied once, or twice, or more times. Those paratexts open a narrow window on how some concerned individuals, oftentimes awfully anxious about their businesses, ask their available notaries for a copy or more of the document they wave in front of the relevant officer’s and other interested parties’ noses.

The law is not only about the intellectual history of its scholarly and kingly production, and it is not only, either, about l’écriture des coutumes. All this, for sure, is the law. But the law is also about something else -namely, about the anxiety whereby individuals acknowledge their own, unexchangeable, and very often terrified or very anxious stance in front of the law.

Another important point raised by Mr Connelly’s novels and by Mr Connelly’s kindle readers is this: the law is everywhere, and we all, ignorant clients of the law, laypersons, are looking for its linguistic traces (vestigia) everywhere -we, therefore, investigate. There is absolutely no limit to this: a contract, a conversation, a novel, or a poem (let’s put for instance the Poem of the Cid, or Berceo’s Miracles, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There is no corner of culture where we would fail to find the law and legal reading, even if it is only to quietly disagree or to loudly dissent -and vice versa.

To state it in yet another way: we want to know who was responsible for the architecture of the house of the law, and how many doors did the architects devise, and who are the guardians that, their upper lip adorned with a tartar mustache, seem to simultaneously allow and impede the client of the law the access to the establishment. But we would like to know more about the individual who, seemingly willingly -but in fact velis nolis– appears in front of the door that allows this person to gain entrance to the law and seems to establish an overly lopsided relationship with it until his very own death -to understand, only then, that the door that he could not or did not dare to cross was open just for him. We would like to know more, for instance, about the reasons, feelings, and emotions, about the expectations that brought him there in the first place.

Let’s assume that I explained, with a certain degree of clarity, why I am doing what I am doing, as well as its relation with Mr Connelly’s novels. There is another reason that I normally don’t say and that is just as important: I like writing about all this. It gives me pleasure. Perhaps because it is as well as way to participate in an everlasting conversation with my parents, who went to Law School at 50 (I was eight), or with one of my sisters, who happens to be a magistrate. Who knows. It is perhaps because at a turning point of my life, I decided not to go to Law School, while my best friend sailed straight into it -only to become a dropout afterwards, even though he was the best student in the whole university, so that he could become an artist, what he was before and what he still is now.

Still, why on earth a project like that would be even slightly interesting for contemporary readers? This is the most difficult question, and it should be the leading one. It was the leading one for Yan Thomas, and this is one of the reasons why I admire him so much, even though, sadly, I never had the chance to meet him. In a different way, it is what Joey Slaughter, and Sophia McLennen are doing, and Liz Anker, and Julie Peters, and Peter Brooks, and Emanuele Conte, and my dear Marta Madero, and so many others. It is also the one I cannot answer for myself, without simply repeating or commenting on what they said in this precise moment, not even with Mr Connelly’s novels. But I will finish with Lydia Davis, when she tells the story of Mrs Orlando, and explains how she “believes in hiring lawyers and feels most comfortable talking to lawyers because every one of their words is endorsed by the law.”

New York – Madrid – Saint-Pierre-la-Mer. May 22 – June 2. 2012.


  1. This is only my research journal for this Summer, and I do not intend it to be very elaborate, and I am certainly not trying to give a bibliographical account of what I am doing.
  2. Now that I am reading his last, The Fifth Witness, I am also following how the main character, Mickey Haller, explains the American crisis of 2008, and the sub-prima mortgages, to his 14 year old daughter. See also Aleix Saló’s Españistán.
  3. here he says, in Greek, enargia, and now see Carlo Ginzburg’s Il filo e le tracce
  4. Inventario de lugares propicios al amor. Ángel González, Tratado de Urbanismo (1967).

    Son pocos. La primavera está muy prestigiada, pero es mejor el verano. Y también esas grietas que el otoño forma al interceder con los domingos en algunas ciudades ya de por sí amarillas como plátanos. El invierno elimina muchos sitios: quicios de puertas orientadas al norte, orillas de los ríos, bancos públicos. Los contrafuertes exteriores de las viejas iglesias dejan a veces huecos utilizables aunque caiga nieve. Pero desengañémonos: las bajas temperaturas y los vientos húmedos lo dificultan todo. Las ordenanzas, además, proscriben la caricia ( con exenciones para determinadas zonas epidérmicas -sin interés alguno- en niños, perros y otros animales) y el «no tocar, peligro de ignominia» puede leerse en miles de miradas. ¿Adónde huir, entonces? Por todas partes ojos bizcos, córneas torturadas, implacables pupilas, retinas reticentes, vigilan, desconfían, amenazan. Queda quizá el recurso de andar solo, de vaciar el alma de ternura y llenarla de hastío e indiferencia, en este tiempo hostil, propicio al odio

  5. “Ascoltare qualcuno che legge ad alta voce è molto diverso che leggere in silenzio. Quando leggi, puoi fermarti o sorvolare sulle frasi: il tempo sei tu che lo decidi. Quando è un altro che legge è difficile far coincidere la tua attenzione col tempo della sua lettura: la voce va o troppo svelta o troppo piano.” Italo Calvino, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore. Chapter 4.
  6. This is the subject of a lecture I gave in Oxford last Februrary, and that I reformulated in Amherst in April

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