Book Review: The Hidden History of Essex Law School

Book Review: The Hidden History of Essex Law School.  Bander, Edward J.   Trafford Publishing, 2010.   Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-4269-3077-5, $19.50.  291 pages.

Edward J. Bander is a legendary law librarian with a long and distinguished career spanning a half-century at elite law schools such as Harvard, Suffolk, and New York University.  He drew extensively from his experiences for his first novel, The Hidden History of Essex Law School. That’s right, I said novel. Reviewing a work of fiction is a rarity here, even an ambitious one like this: at once a historical novel, a lurid tell-all, a travelogue, a mystery, and surely a semi-autobiography as well.  However, as a book by a law librarian ABOUT a law librarian (and a fictitious fourth-tier Boston law school), it merits a review as much as the latest treatise or research guide.

Tom Jones, Bander’s protagonist, is an accomplished law librarian, library director, and faculty member at Essex Law School, sort of an underdog among New England’s law schools that carved out a niche for itself by recruiting working-class students, women, and minorities when the Ivy Leagues remained exclusive institutions with quotas and high tuition rates.  The dean has tasked Tom with researching and writing a history of the school in order to increase its profile and hopefully raise funds, but the deeper Tom digs, he starts to realize that Essex really deserves to have two histories written.  One would be positive, for mass consumption and good public relations, but Essex’s hidden history would have to be a hard-hitting expose that recounts all the conflicts, controversies, and conspiracies behind the school and its founders, faculty members, students, alumni, and benefactors – in other words, the truth.  Though Tom becomes obsessed with his quest to write this latter history, he does not intend to share it with the world.

Tom Jones is an all-too-rare librarian hero who isn’t a socially awkward bookworm, and Bander goes into great detail on how competent and well-respected Tom is by the majority of his peers at Essex Law School and the legal community as a whole.  He at once personifies two other familiar literary archetypes: the truth-seeking investigative reporter and the relentless, unyielding detective, though he is more polite and mild-mannered than either archetype.  While balancing his responsibilities at the law library and putting up with his overly-flirtatious, hard-drinking, estranged wife, Tom uncovers endless indiscretions by various professors and Essex alumni, stands up to an anti-Semitic, bullying associate dean, gets seduced by a prominent alumna while trying to interview her, and survives a noxious interview with the most flatulent old lawyer ever.  Meanwhile, he befriends the elderly former secretary of Essex’s founding dean, a woman with plenty of secrets of her own.

My biggest complaint about this book is that it could have used the close, critical eye of a copy editor.  It suffers from several distracting typographical errors.  Most are punctuation-related (missing or extra periods, quotes that never close, and so forth), but occasionally characters’ names are switched randomly, even within the same paragraph.  It includes an index, uncommon for novels, but practically necessary for keeping the characters straight.  One affectation caught me off guard every time, though: Bander’s continuous spelling of Harvard as “Havad” (surely to capture the regional accent).   The book’s pacing tends to be slow, but it is not a “legal thriller” by any means, nor does it attempt to be.

Unfortunately, despite its commentary on legal education, lawyers, and scholars, The Hidden History of Essex Law School is ultimately a work of fiction, so it would not fit into most law library collections.  Our law school has a very small legal fiction section due to a Law and Literature class we offer, and I can imagine Bander’s book shelved there alongside Grisham and Turow.  However, we all know that our law students put “reading for pleasure” on hold for three years, and while many law professors might appreciate this look behind the occasionally-stained curtains of a law school through the decades, I doubt many of them have much time for novels either.  I do recommend law librarians purchase this book, though: it would be most appropriate as a gift to give yourselves or each other.  There is no doubt that Bander’s labor of love is intended for his fellow law librarians to enjoy, and other audiences discovering it would just be a bonus.

Louis Rosen is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor of Law Library at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida.

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