Omon Ra, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, A Matter of Interpretation, Packing for Mars and How to be a Woman

Originally, this was a discussion of books. At the end, it turns into a set of opinions on constitutional interpretation. You’ve been warned. 

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin is translated from Russian and, although it’s the sort of thing I would never pick up if not for this project, it was a great book. The best word to describe it is really Kafkaesque, with a number of plot twists, some cruel, yet ridiculous circumstances and a full cast of crazy characters. It centers around a Soviet astronaut and his trip to the moon..and well, saying anything more than that would be full of spoilers. The first couple chapters are a bit slow, but it really picks up towards the end - read this.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a bestseller, and I can understand why - it tightly interweaves the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells created HeLa, the first modern line of human cells used for medical testing, and the story of Rebecca Skloot’s search for the story behind the lines of cells and the women whose body they came from. It’s not a traditional history - Skloot is obviously invested in her subject and became close with Lacks’s daughter, and so the book also explores how the Lacks family has been exploited and mistreated by doctors, even as the HeLa cell line saved lives. I very much enjoyed the issues of medical consent and research permissions raised by the book - and considering the weightiness of the topics raised, it’s a surprisingly light read.

Packing for Mars is by Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Boink (her forthcoming book is called Gulp, which just confirms that this three word title was an aberration.) Roach’s work is pop science of a sort unlike Gladwell’s and closer to Skloot’s - the narrator and explorer of these experiences has a clear voice, and we hear about what she thinks of the various adventurers she goes on and people she meets in an effort to understand what long term space travel would be like. Roach’s books are always slightly disappointing to me, as I love her topics and the concepts of her books, but always find that she has an obsession with sex and the scatological that sours the experience of reading. Every chapter seems to have its own discussion of astronauts going to the bathroom (or not going to the bathroom), and although that is a part of the problems of space travel, I tired quickly of hearing another paen to the space toilet. May her editor cut some of this shit (pun intended) from her next book.

On the back of How To be A Woman, there’s a note about how Caitlin Moran’s memoir is a British version of Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” Don’t let that fool you - it is neither as funny as Bossypants or as subversive, despite its claims to feminist manifesto. Fey’s wry sense of humor means that even her recounting of girlhood embarrassments presents a broader critique of gender stereotypes and the experience of growing up female - Moran draws these parallels directly, but I still didn’t feel like I came away understanding femininity or feminism any better after reading about her childhood (or young adult) exploits. Overhyped, for a mediocre memoir with a hint of feminist 101.

A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law: Calling this a book might be a bit of a stretch - it’s a text by Scalia on constitutional and statutory interpretation, with rebuttals from other scholars and then another rebuttal from Scalia. Reading it, I did get a better sense of the distinctions that scholars and judges draw when interpreting the Constitution, but I’m not sure any of the perspectives really persuaded me in one direction or another. Scalia’s main thesis is that textualism, his preferred philosophy, is the least susceptible to the whims of a judge who wishes to make a case come out differently. Legislative intent, purposivism, all of that can be manipulated to conform to a judge’s view, but the plain language of the statute cannot be changed. Thus, textualism results in the most consistent set of decisions across courts and time periods. 

This may be true, but for a theory that is the least open to manipulation by judges, it’s still pretty open. All I have to think of here is how much time Breyer and Ginsberg spent discussing the phrase “under this title” in the Copyright Act in Kirtsaeng. (Not the Constitution, but still.) Noting that Scalia’s counterargument would be that these two judges are not pure enough textualists and that’s why they disagree, I’m still not inclined to believe that any transformation of words to doctrine will ever be separated from the aims the judge wants to achieve, and therefore pretending to adhere to a philosophy that makes this distinction will only result in self-delusion. Perhaps this self-delusions preferable to rulings based primarily on policy grounds. 

Additionally, as one of the other scholars points out, the Constitution is clearly sometimes aspirationally phrased - and to pretend otherwise is sheer folly. Scalia dances around this, saying to some extent that there’s preamble text and we can ignore that and concentrate on the words that he think matters. A textual philosophy where you ignore half the words is not much of a textual philosophy. 

Even if I grant Scalia’s argument that textualism is the one pure (or purest) way to determine meaning, I’m still not sure that I find that a persuasive enough argument to solely rely on textual analysis of the Constitution. Is consistency of decision-making really the end goal of Constitutional interpretation? I’d rather have an inconsistent court that stands up for the rights of minority groups and construes the Constitution in a way that promotes social good. Of course, what promotes the social good is hard to determine, and a textualist philosophy may spare us some of that uncertainty. At the end, I guess that’s where the argument rests. Scalia would prefer that a judge’s beliefs and opinions be sublimated into a pure text interpretation, where a court might be unable to rule firmly for reasons of policy grounds and thus would be forced into a more consistent. I’m not convinced that actually will result in more good in the world.