The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Book Reviews

Three Book Recommendations From Me (Plus Many From My Colleagues)

An excellent fantasy series, an 1100 page biography, and the original meaning of Article II


As is our annual tradition, the University of Chicago Law School has posted a list of books our faculty are reading and recommend this year. Here are the two I highlighted:

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

The first in a new series of nine novellas by one of the best living fantasy authors. The main character is possessed by a demon and uses his newfound powers to solve mysteries, heal the sick, and revolutionize the system of scholarly translation. Each story is funny and satisfying on its own, and taken together they build an interesting and theologically complex world.

And Grant, by Ron Chernow

1,100 pages about General and President Ulysses S. Grant, this book was surprisingly gripping despite its length. Part military history, part West Wing intrigue, part meditation on the process of reconciliation and reconstruction, the book is also full of rich legal nuggets and cameo appearances by everybody from Mark Twain to George Custer. The biggest puzzle about Grant is how somebody who was so mediocre at almost everything in his life turned out to be such a historically great general. But he did.

Unfortunately I finished sending in those recommendations just before the mail delivered a copy of Michael McConnell's blockbuster book on the original understanding of the presidency, The President Who Would Not Be King. I hope to have more to say about it soon, but in the meantime, here's the book description:

One of the most vexing questions for the framers of the Constitution was how to create a vigorous and independent executive without making him king. In today's divided public square, presidential power has never been more contested. The President Who Would Not Be King cuts through the partisan rancor to reveal what the Constitution really tells us about the powers of the president.

Michael McConnell provides a comprehensive account of the drafting of presidential powers. Because the framers met behind closed doors and left no records of their deliberations, close attention must be given to their successive drafts. McConnell shows how the framers worked from a mental list of the powers of the British monarch, and consciously decided which powers to strip from the presidency to avoid tyranny. He examines each of these powers in turn, explaining how they were understood at the time of the founding, and goes on to provide a framework for evaluating separation of powers claims, distinguishing between powers that are subject to congressional control and those in which the president has full discretion.

Based on the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, The President Who Would Not Be King restores the original vision of the framers, showing how the Constitution restrains the excesses of an imperial presidency while empowering the executive to govern effectively.