Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action

In keeping with my recent theme of clearing up leftover must-reads from the 1990s, I finally got to Jonathan Harr's 1996 A Civil Action, which the sticker on the cover proclaims was a #1 National Bestseller as well as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. The book doesn't mention the star-studded 1998 movie of the same name based on the book, but it's worth mentioning here, I'd say.

So three difficult-to-justify factors make this an unlikely book choice for me: big sales (Harr doesn't need money or support from me), critical praise (see previous thin justification), and a movie (ditto, plus the possibility of co-option, and by John Travolta, no less - though William H. Macy's good...). On the other hand, I teach nonfiction sometimes now, so I'm trying to read more of it, and this is after all a story of environmental justice denied, so for those reasons it made it into the "sooner than later" pile.

No question, this is a powerful story. Apparently the original draft MS was 1500 pages long, crammed with detail that went toward evoking every aspect of this compelling legal case, so it's an editorial triumph for Robert Loomis at Random House that he managed to get it down to under 500 pages. It's a real page-turner, and I mean that as a compliment. You get carried away by the force of lawyer Jan Schlictmann's passion for it all, so the pages pass rapidly, and when things start to go wrong, and the story slows with fewer actual events and an absence of real progress, you feel every page turned like a finger poked against your forehead: when the action stops, but the pages have to keep being turned, you share the weight felt by Schlictmann and his partners.

I'm glad I read it, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in crime stories, justice, or environmental issues. It's a fairly quick read, and it gives some terrifically clear insight into how the legal process works for complex environmental cases: clear enough that I'm ready to start Derrick Jensen's Endgame Volume II: Resistance, which seems to go so far as to explain how many pounds of explosive might be needed to take out different kinds of dams.


Anonymous said…
I've just ordered this, incidentally it is out of print in the UK. Add to your difficult to justify factors for me that it appears (from the picture on Amazon) to have large embossed gold letters for the title. Given finite life-span I frequently judge books by their cover and tend to avoid embossed gold (and silver but less so) type as one often finds lowest common denominator content on the inside. Your review intrigues me, it sounds as if the content is not what one would expect from the cover. (Perhaps one should revise the adage- expediency demands that you should judge a book by its cover although on occasion this will result in an inapt judgement.)

In any case it is duly added to my ever burgeoning books I have bought and now need to get round to reading pile. Thanks for the review.
richard said…
Good heavens, someone ordered a book based on what I said?!? The power ... going to my head .... I hope you enjoy it: certainly I think it's worth reading, but it's always a gamble listening to someone else's opinion. I hope you'll come back and tell me how it goes!

And the book does indeed have embossed gold letters on its cover. No bare-chested hunk, no curlicues on the letters, but bad enough.

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