Just before the Supreme Court's October sitting, Justice Antonin Scalia made national headlines by proclaiming that he believes in Satan.
But before the November sitting, Justice Stephen G. Breyer sparked widespread apathy when he revealed he has read Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu.
Breyer made this startling revelation in an interview with La Revue des Deux Mondes of Paris, published in translation by The New York Review of Books.*
I suspect that many Americans, told of this accomplishment, would be baffled: Why read a book in French when there are good English translations available? Why bother with a work of thousands of pages and damned little action? (Before it was published, a reader for one French publisher rejected it, saying, "My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don't understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep.")
For that matter, why read it at all, when the first volume has been made into a lush, sexy film starring Jeremy Irons?
In the interview, Breyer called Proust "the Shakespeare of the inner world," a writer who can give readers a sense of knowing the one thing it is completely impossible to know—what it is like to be another person:
Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me a crucial quality in a judge.
In American legal discourse, empathy is often portrayed as less respectable than Satan. Judges are presented as elements in the vast economic machine. Their job is to keep the conveyor belt flowing and to dispose of human widgets who come out defective. For these functionaries to be aware of those standing before them as fellow human beings would be dangerous.