Federal Bar Association

An Interview with former book review editor of The Federal Lawyer, Henry Cohen

Henry Cohen has been The Federal Lawyer’s book review editor for almost three decades.  He has closed this chapter of his involvement with FBA, but will continue to submit an occasional review to TFL.  This is a good opportunity to highlight his tenure and his editing prowess.

Q:  How did you come to be the book review editor?

A:  I started writing book reviews for the Federal Bar News & Journal in 1987. That journal became The Federal Lawyer in 1995. My first two book reviews were published in January and October 1987, and I submitted a third. When I submitted it, I asked the book review editor whether I could see the galleys before the review was published. She said no, that it was not the magazine’s policy. Back then, before the computer age, a book review had to be retyped for publication; there was no copying and pasting. Proofreading, therefore, was important. Yet my review was published in the December 1987 issue with phrases and punctuation dropped, rendering some sentences incoherent. The editor also added apostrophes to possessive “its,” and inserted other errors. I sent her a letter listing eight errors, and she never replied. I kicked myself for not writing to the editor in chief and demanding that the review be republished.

I liked the Federal Bar News & Journal, but I decided that I would not submit another book review to it unless I was its book review editor. An opening on the editorial board occurred at that time, and I applied. The editor in chief took me out to lunch to interview me (at the time, all the magazine’s editors worked in Washington, D.C.), and she put me on the editorial board. Shortly thereafter, the book review editor resigned, and I got that position. I learned, incidentally, that there was no magazine policy about showing galleys to reviewers. My policy, to which I adhered throughout the 28 years that I served as book review editor, was to share my edited version of each review with the reviewer before I sent it to the magazine to await publication. This edited version contained all significant edits, and I welcomed reviewers’ comments about them, and was flexible when they objected to an edit. Before I sent any book review to the magazine, both the reviewer and I were satisfied with the edited version. I did not send galleys to reviewers because I didn’t make significant edits to them (I might catch a place where TFL‘s computer dropped italics or broke up a word in the wrong place at the end of a line), and because I was pressed for time, having received the galleys not long before the issue went to press.

Q:  What has been most rewarding about your tenure?

A:  I took book review editing seriously, strove for perfection in every review I edited, and was proud of the results. Yet I would hesitate to reread the early reviews I edited, because I became better at it over the years, and I might not be wholly pleased with the work I did at the beginning. For example, it was only a few years ago that it occurred to me that rarely should a sentence start with “There are,” as those words are usually superfluous. Why write, “There are ten chapters in the book” when one can write (with two fewer words), “The book has ten chapters”? Actually, I would usually delete such a sentence, even if it did not include “There,” because I don’t believe that readers of reviews care how many chapters a book has. A review should never proceed, “Chapter 1 states,” “Chapter 2 states,” and so on.

But I haven’t really answered the question. The most rewarding aspect of editing for me was that it was fun. When someone submitted a review, I would generally stop whatever I was doing and start to edit it. If it arrived at night when I was too tired to really edit it, I’d go through it for technical matters, such as making it conform to TFL style conventions, such as spelling out numbers one through nine, but using numerals for 10 and up. I’d also go to amazon.com to make sure that the reviewer had spelled the title and author correctly, and I’d add the publisher, the number of pages, and the list price of the book.

Q:  What has been least rewarding about your tenure?

A:  It was that editing became so second nature to me that I could not read anything without mentally editing it, and that could be annoying. Some books that I read were so poorly edited that I wondered whether the publisher had even hired an editor.

Q:  We know you were the book review editor from the one-line bio on the reviews you wrote for TFL. What was your position, or career?  Background?

A:  I graduated from St. John’s University School of Law in 1975 and spent my entire 34-year career as a legislative attorney with the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. CRS is the “Congress” part of the Library of Congress; it does objective research for Congress, in U.S. law, economics, science, political science, social welfare, and so forth. I covered many areas of federal law, but my specialties included freedom of speech, tort reform, and court awards of attorneys’ fees. My favorite assignments were to write opinions on whether pending bills, such as bills to censor pornography on the Internet, would violate the First Amendment. I would base my conclusions on Supreme Court precedent, which made my work like that of a federal court of appeals judge, except that my work had far less effect than that of a judge, because members of Congress could ignore my work if they disliked my conclusions. But that was fine, because it made my job less stressful than that of most lawyers or judges. It left me enough time to spend with my family and my non-legal interests.

Speaking of which, in my spare time, I also took advantage of the “Library” part of the Library of Congress. If I were reading a book about, say, Sigmund Freud, and I came across a footnote citing a 19th-century journal article, I could go into the stacks (where the general public is not allowed), retrieve the journal, and take it to my office and photocopy the article. During the period when I was interested in Freud, I got to know Freud scholars, and they would sometimes ask me for a favor, which I would happily do: Go to the Manuscript Reading Room and photocopy an unpublished letter of Freud’s for them. It might save them a trip to Washington, D.C., and it would often earn me an acknowledgement in their book. I also got a bit of a thrill from handling Freud’s original letters.

Q:  What are your reading interests?

A:   I read about 40 or 50 books a year–80 percent non-fiction and 20 percent fiction. The non-fiction is primarily history and biography. For years, that meant primarily books about Abraham Lincoln and related matters; such books were the subject of 17 of the 20 book reviews I published in TFL during the past decade. Now, my interest in Lincoln has diminished and my reading includes books on British history and art history. I’ve also read many books on Hitler and the Holocaust, but I never read books about times more recent than that. As for fiction, I stick primarily to the 19th century.

Q:  What are you reading now?

A:  Memoirs of the Foreign Legion, by M.M. The author’s name is Maurice Magnus; he was an American who served in the French Foreign Legion during World War I; the book came out in 1925. I came upon it by chance in a used bookstore and bought it because it has an 80-page introduction by D.H. Lawrence, much of whose work I’ve read. Lawrence knew Magnus, and he also knew the novelist Norman Douglas. My next book will be Douglas’ D.H. Lawrence and Maurice Magnus: A Plea for Better Manners (1925), in which Douglas protests that Lawrence’s introduction to Memoirs of the Foreign Legion maligned Magnus.

I had been a recovering reviewer—my last was in March 2016. But I just wrote one on the treason prosecution of Jefferson Davis, and I now plan to review Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court by Paul Finkelman.

Q:  What book had the greatest impact on you?

A:  Taking Rights Seriously, by Ronald Dworkin. This is a collection of essays on legal philosophy, published in 1977; I read it soon after it was published. I’d not studied philosophy as an undergraduate (except a political science course on social contract theory), nor jurisprudence in law school, yet I was drawn to this book. Dworkin, who died in 2013, may have been the most important legal philosopher of the 20th century, and was a wonderfully clear writer; he wrote not only academic legal philosophy, but reviewed law-related books for the New York Review of Books. Taking Rights Seriously has numerous references to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, which I hadn’t heard of even though it was the most important work of political philosophy of the 20th century. So I read that, and encountered many references to Immanuel Kant and other great philosophers, and knew that I’d have to learn about them. I proceeded to take a couple of undergraduate survey courses, and for the next 20 years, read philosophy extensively. My favorite philosopher was Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, as he intended, persuaded me to give up philosophy, and, for the past 20 years, my main intellectual interest has been in history. But Taking Rights Seriously gave me my intellectual inclinations and thereby changed me as a person.

Taking Rights Seriously also led, indirectly, to my becoming the book review editor for The Federal Lawyer. In 1986, a colleague of mine at the CRS, who was also an officer in the FBA, brought to the office a stack of books that the FBA had received from publishers, and offered them to people who would review them. I asked to review Dworkin’s latest book, Law’s Empire, and it became my first review for the magazine. My first review was a good experience, so I reviewed a second and a third book, and, as I noted above, the bad experience with third prompted me to become the book review editor.

Q:  So where did you get the books to review, and the reviewers?

A:  Publishers send books to TFL unsolicited in the hope that we will review them. But we did so infrequently during my tenure. Rather, reviewers contacted me and asked whether they could review a particular book. I then e-mailed the book’s publisher’s publicity department and asked them to send a complimentary copy to the reviewer; they virtually always did, and they did not inquire if we did not publish a review. If we did publish a review, I sent a copy to the publicist. If we did not publish a review, it was almost always because the reviewer did not submit one.  I very rarely rejected a review.

As for where I got reviewers, they usually contacted me; I rarely solicited reviews, except to let prior reviewers know that we had received an unsolicited book in a subject that interested them.

Q:  If someone is now interested in reviewing, whom should they contact?

A:  The current book review editor is Caroline Johnson Levine, levine.levinelaw@gmail.com.

Q:  Any advice for how to write a review?

A:  Take lots of notes as you read, copy quotations that you might use, and put down your thoughts. I do these things on my computer; if I am reading the book while not near my computer, I’ll use an index card as a bookmark and write on that, and then transfer it to my computer as soon as I can. That way, when I finish the book, I have something to work with and not just a blank screen. In fact, while I am still reading the book, I often organize and edit the notes and quotations and thoughts that I’ve typed onto the screen, so that, when I finish the book, I’ve practically finished the review as well. Reviewers who rely on their memory make mistakes. When I would read something suspicious in a review that I was editing, I would look up the text of the book at amazon.com or Google Books and find the section that the reviewer was addressing. Doing that would enable me to catch errors, and I would also sometimes replace a reviewer’s paraphrase with a quotation from the book. I would do this when the author of the book expressed himself better than the reviewer did; I sense that some reviewers think that quoting is somehow cheating. It’s not.

Another piece of advice is to stop thinking like a lawyer when you write a review, and think more creatively. Details make a review more interesting. Suppose, for example, that you are writing about a trip that Abraham Lincoln took down the Mississippi as a young man transporting goods on a flatboat. Include a list of the goods (which happened to have included live hogs) rather than writing merely that Lincoln transported “goods.” The list of goods might not be “relevant” in a legal sense, but, since you’re writing a book review and not a legal memorandum, you should try to make your writing colorful.

Q: Have you an epilogue to your tenure?

A: I am proud of having brought unfamiliar books to the attention of our readers. Over the years, the reviewed books were generally not bestsellers. Our readers, I hope, learned a lot about different things. I am also gratified in having worked with our TFL reviewers. They are a diverse lot—private and public lawyers, active and retired, judges and academics, from all over the country. Some have become personal friends. I appreciated that they seemed to have welcomed my editing and many wrote review after review for TFL.  I will now eagerly look forward to getting TFL and seeing what new books are reviewed. It has been fun.


By Jon M. Sands

Jon M. Sands is the federal public defender for the District of Arizona, and a long-time book reviewer for TFL.