Richard Posner’s Academic Hyper-Productivity

One of the strongest influences on my research on narrative has been Richard Posner’s Law and Literature – all three editions of it. What I like about the book(s) is his thoughtful readings of literary texts dealing with the law and the legal system, and the way his book has evolved from a focus on canonical novels to a broader discussion that includes film, narrative in legal advocacy and judging, and legal rhetoric. I disagree with Posner’s critique of literary intentionalism and, au contraire, I I find the director’s commentary included in DVDs of many movies to be helpful to my own thinking. But what I like about his work far outweighs what I dislike.

I’ve also been fascinated by Posner’s hyper-productivity as a scholar. With ten books and seventy articles or chapters to my credit, I rate myself as two standard deviations beyond the mean in terms of lifetime academic productivity. I estimate that Posner’s productivity puts him four or five standard deviations beyond the mean. Without admitting the possibility of cloning  — one to write the decisions and the other to write the books – I’ve always wondered how he does it.

I’ve just finished reading William Domnarski’s recent biography of Posner and still don’t have a complete answer. I respect the thoroughness of Domnarski’s effort at assimilating the huge corpus of Posner’s legal and academic work and commenting thoughtfully on it. Though he devoted only a few pages to Law and Literature, I thought his remarks were incisive. As I am not a lawyer, I didn’t have the sustained interest to read Domnarski’s discussion of Posner’s legal decisions and why they were upheld or reversed by the Supreme Court.

Perhaps because Domnarski had Posner’s cooperation and also because Posner is a self-declared cat person, the book revealed little of Posner’s personal life. We learn early on that Posner writes quickly and rarely has to revise his work. We learn in the last chapter that, even at age 75, Posner continues to work 7 days a week. The fact of Posner’s marriage is noted early on, and then his wife Charlene is never mentioned again. Posner has two children, one of whom is a distinguished law professor and faculty colleague at the University of Chicago, but they are never mentioned. The only personal relationship we learn much about is with the distinguished philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who plays the role of “work wife.”

I would like to have learned more about Posner the person, why he is such a workaholic and what occupies his life when he isn’t working. There is obviously a relationship between the two, and it is often hypothesized that shortcomings in family life could be both the cause and consequence of workaholism.

If working seven days a week is necessary to go from being two standard deviations above mean academic productivity to four or five about the mean, count me out. My weekends are a welcome change of pace, with more time spent with my kids (to the extent that they want to spend time with me), on entertainment (Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts and Hockey Night in Canada), on reading (Sunday New York Times), and on exercise. Having had a great run on a sunny late fall morning I’ll post this blog and get back to the opera.

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