In those moments of free time after finishing work on that summary judgment motion or prospectus, or after reading those hundreds of pages of case law, commercial contracts, discovery motions, or trust documents, it’s nice to pick up a good book before getting sucked into the maelstrom of the 24-hour news cycle or pulled into the Netflix/cable-TV vortex. Here are a few books that I’ve checked out over the past few months that have helped keep me engaged in the world of ideas.

Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University. He’s also an exceptional writer, who has been brave enough to wander from his academic specialties to tackle big social problems. His latest book is a full-throated defense of the Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism, and progress against the dark forces of sensationalism and demagoguery.

Enlightenment Now expands on Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which examined the history of violence and demonstrated that contrary to popular misconceptions, rates of violence have declined exponentially from pre-industrial to contemporary, post-industrial societies. In his latest book, Pinker uses an impressive array of demographic data to examine broader measures of human well-being. A hundred years ago, human lifespans were far shorter, and most people were far poorer, less healthy, and less educated. Pinker demonstrates that through advances in technology and medicine, social advances such as the spread of mass literacy, and political advances such as the spread of democracy, life has gotten better for the vast majority of people in the world by every material measure. Pinker argues that available demographic data also show that life has gotten better on less material measures as well. Why is it, then, that people don’t feel much better and, in fact, according to some measures, actually are more pessimistic than in prior generations? The paradox of our time is that life has never been better for the vast majority of humans alive today and yet many people, particularly in the advanced industrial countries like the United States that have benefitted most from progress, feel a deep anxiety that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket.” This, Pinker argues, is a big lie that needs to be proven wrong.

Pinker is not Panglossian in his outlook. He worries that current popular mistrust of science—exemplified by movements such as the rejection of immunization—and the spread of demagogic nationalist and identity politics, threaten the developments that we have achieved with Enlightenment reason. Progress isn’t guaranteed. Pinker admits that there are existential threats to our society such as climate change and weapons of mass destruction that did not threaten prior generations and that urgently need to be addressed. However, Pinker argues that the way to solve our problems is through more science, better education, and more democracy, not through undue pessimism, appeals to exaggerated past glories, tribalism, or Nietzschean-style elitism.

I think Enlightenment Now may be looked back on as one of the most important books of the decade. Pinker’s message is simple: Rational debate and the scientific method have worked to solve social problems in the past, and elites need to embrace those traditions to solve the problems that the world currently faces. The power of Pinker’s book stems from the depth of the research behind it (endnotes take up the last third of the book) and his precise but delightfully readable style. And when your eyes are too tired to keep reading, the graphs are amazing. Enlightenment Now is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary social problems, which, I think, includes most lawyers.

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation, by Miriam Pawel

At this moment when Jerry Brown has, it seems, retired from politics for good, it is fitting to look back at how he and his family shaped and were shaped by this State. Miriam Pawel, who has previously written a biography of Cesar Chavez, does an admirable job of recounting the Brown family saga over more than a hundred years of California history.

Pawel starts by telling the story of the first Brown ancestors in California. One side of the family ran an inn at the edge of the Coastal Range, in Colusa County. The other side of the family ran a gambling hall and cigar stores in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. It’s kind of an every-Californian family story of seeking opportunities in a new land. These opening chapters of the book give a good idea of what life was like in California for the Browns and many other ordinary and extraordinary families.

The story then shifts to the remarkable rise of Jerry’s father, Pat Brown. Without a college education, Pat went from night school, a legal apprenticeship and the hurly burly of city politics, to work his way to become San Francisco district attorney, state attorney general, and then governor. As Pawel tells it, Pat built his political career on natural gregariousness and old-fashioned, backroom politics. She reminds us of some of Pat Brown’s remarkable accomplishments as governor. It was a “can do” time of big projects, and Pat Brown could take credit for some of the biggest. He spearheaded the California Water Project, which engineered a system to take unimaginable quantities of water from the Delta, through the Central Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains to slake the thirst and fire the development of Southern California. He also led the expansion of the University of California system to make it the greatest system of public education in the world. Believe it or not, a UC education was free in Pat Brown’s day.

Pat reached the zenith of his political career at the beginning of the Sixties, when previously way-out-west California was moving towards the center of the political map of the United States. Pat couldn’t quite make the transition to the national political scene that his contemporaries from the Republican Party — Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — were able to make; and so, after two terms as governor, Pat retired to Los Angeles.

That was exactly the moment when Jerry Brown got into politics. By Pawel’s telling, Jerry was, in a way, the polar opposite of his father. Jerry was introspective and intellectual, where his father was outgoing but always somewhat insecure of the fact that he had never gotten a college degree. Jerry wanted to do things his own way, at the same time that he couldn’t get past the fact that he shared the same name as his father and was the beneficiary of the family dynasty. In a few short years, Jerry rose from community college trustee, to secretary of state, and then to governor.

Of course, as we all know, Jerry Brown has broken the record for time served as governor, with two terms, from 1975 to 1983; and two more terms, from 2011 to 2019. What I found interesting in Pawel’s telling was the extent to which Jerry started his political career espousing the limits of government and fiscal responsibility, themes for which he became better known during his most recent reign. These themes got lost to the public along the way, when he got stuck with the label “Governor Moonbeam” — based on a visionary idea that California could lead the world in space exploration and should develop its own public/private satellite program. But in those early years, Jerry saw that California’s economic future was in advanced technology. He noted presciently, “I see the future of America, and California, tied to the ability to store, retrieve, and transmit ever greater amounts of data at ever higher rates of speed…I’m going to do what I can to make sure that America does take the leadership position and that California is at the lead of this scientific-technological trajectory.” Pawel does an admirable job of chronicling Jerry’s early rise and fall and his long gestation and political rebirth, all guided by the mantra that he learned as a Jesuit seminarian: age quod agis — “do what you are doing.” She also tells the story of Kathleen Brown, who for a moment seemed like she was also destined to be governor, with perhaps even higher political aspirations. Pawel reminds us that California was the testing ground for the now nationally proven technique of mobilizing anti-immigrant fervor and fears. Kathleen bravely spoke out against Prop. 187 during her campaign, but lost the race for governor.

Pawel ends her saga with the end of Jerry Brown’s career in politics and his return to the same lands in Colusa County that his ancestors had settled more than a hundred years ago. In her telling, the story of the Brown family has become the story of California, so it is fitting that it should leave off, but not end, at the frontier homestead where Pat Brown’s mother was raised.

Gone Missing, a Marin County Mystery, by Colin Claxon

Lastly, I want to give a shout out and a tip of the hat to Colin Claxon, a longtime Marin lawyer, and a longtime member of the MCBA. In his debut novel, Claxon weaves a rollicking legal thriller out of a real-life Marin County court case.

The first half of Gone Missing is set in 1973, and Claxon artfully paints a picture of how it was to live and practice law in Marin back then. It was, in Claxon’s telling, a time when pot-smoking hippies roamed the land, when the county courthouse dominated the heart of downtown San Rafael, when courtroom security was non-existent, and when lawyers could charm their way past the clerks to chat with the judge and get their orders signed. First, we ride along with John Meagor, a first-year law student spending his summer working as a private investigator. His assignment is to infiltrate a gang of squatters living the “hippy lifestyle” in an abandoned summer cabin in West Marin, take a three-year-old boy from his young mom—who is too busy trying to find herself to care for the boy—and return him to his straight-laced East Coast dad.

Mission accomplished, we get to the heart of Claxon’s story: the courtroom drama. Claxon delights in the blow-by-blow of litigation through the eyes of Will Grant, a young Marin lawyer who’s hired to represent the dad for the child custody battle. We ride along through the process of obtaining an emergency custody order, preparing the witnesses, and the jab and parry of the trial testimony in the courtroom of the Honorable Homer J. Halsey. Along the way, we are treated to some great quips of attorney wisdom from Claxon’s alter ego: “With the law, he thought as he stepped off the curb, everything is urgent and everyone is in a hurry;” “Hey, five figures are better than four, and both are better than a defense verdict;” and “There are times when an attorney asks one too many questions.…This was one of them.” But, as in many courtroom dramas, the most dramatic moments occur outside of the witness box, and we learn that justice is sometimes long deferred.

The second half of Gone Missing fast forwards twenty-five years, as we follow the now grown-up boy on grown-up adventures in sophisticated D.C. society, his travels to the charming Chesapeake Bay region, and fly fishing on the McCloud River. The dominant theme in the second half of the book is that old author’s trick, the power of coincidence.

According to Claxon, the first half of the book is based on a real-life case—a trial he could never forget. The details of the case and the setting of Marin in the 1970s echo his actual experience. The second half of the book is Claxon’s fantasy ending to that story. This is Claxon’s first novel, at age 80. He says that he is enjoying a busy retirement from legal practice, but he surely has more stories to tell, so stay tuned.