Having it to lose: Bill Miller's Losing It finds sweet spot

By John Masson

"Affable misanthropy," like "military intelligence," may seem like an oxymoron at first.

And then you meet Bill Miller.

Prof. Bill MillerFor a man who's spent his scholarly career dabbling in the least-pleasant environs of his own soul—and the collective soul of humanity, with courses like Bloodfeuds, his highly sought-after examination of score-settling in medieval Iceland—Michigan Law's Thomas G. Long Professor of Law may have reservations about the human race's claims to nobility.

But just because you authored Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, one of the great books of medieval history, doesn't mean you can't also enjoy riding your giant motorcycle from Ann Arbor through the late-autumn chill, back to your hometown of Green Bay, Wisc., to enjoy a Packers game. Without casting aspersions on the good people of Green Bay, it may have been on one such trip that the subject of Miller's just-published work, Losing It, came to him.

"The 'losing it' of this title refers to losing my mental abilities, which just happens with age," Miller said. "The joke is you get wiser, but come on. My head doesn't work as well as it once did, in the same way that I can’t run as far or as fast."

If that's true, it's hard to tell from the resulting 260-odd pages of delightfully rendered prose, which are bound to reinforce whatever self-doubts readers may already carry about their own mentation.

"I write about things that everybody's thought about at some level," Miller said of his body of work, which, beside Bloodtaking, also includes The Anatomy of Disgust, Faking It, andThe Mystery of Courage. "They might not own up to it, but they've thought about it."

Better still, for a certain type of law professor, is the freedom to write about topics like revenge—which most would agree forms one ancient underpinning of the law—while completely avoiding the often-constraining format of a law review article.

"None of my stuff's utilitarian, unless you actually want to take revenge," Miller said. "We don't put an axe in people's heads anymore, but we certainly are constantly getting even, or figuring out ways of getting even, or people are getting even with us."

Losing It, by Prof. Bill MillerSome, such as longtime friend John Hudson, a history professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland, argue that Losing It was the book Miller was meant to write since he published his first book, at what Miller now would consider the infantile age of 44.

"At first, he meant to write a misanthropy trilogy," Hudson said: Faking It, Disgust, and a book that was to have been called Cowardice.

But Cowardice becameThe Mystery of Courage because Miller, uncharacteristically became fascinated with bravery while studying its opposite. Inconveniently, Hudson said, that didn't fit with Miller's leitmotif of malevolence and malfeasance. So until Losing It came along, the misanthropy trilogy remained incomplete.

Hudson says one of the most remarkable things about Miller is his ability to sort through a vast array of knowledge on a huge variety of topics, and still cobble his conclusions together in an understandable and personal way.

Face to face, conversations with Miller proceed the same way. They may be peppered with references to Norse-era sagas or quotations from Seneca, but any shadow of ponderousness is instantly deflated when Miller utters some of the English language's oldest and least-acceptable words, or when he asks a question about last week's Packers game. There may be a tomahawk-like Icelandic battle-axe on his bookcase, in other words, but just a few feet away rests an old Green Bay Packers cheese-head hat that looks old enough to have been the prototype.

Mark West, the Nippon Life Professor of Law at Michigan and the Law School's associate dean, verified Miller's intellectual range-of-motion.

"He gets a reputation, after all these years teaching Bloodfeuds, of being a historian trying to pull law in," West said. "But he also teaches 1L property. He's a first-rate 1L teacher ... and he's a serious legal scholar, as well. I'm not sure people give him credit for that."

West cites an entertaining passage in Losing It in which Miller crafts an elegant explanation—in five simple pages—of the Rule Against Perpetuities. RAP has confounded law students (and lawyers) for generations, but that doesn't bother Miller, whose lucid explication also manages to refer to an invasion from outer space.

"And it's buried in Losing It!" West lamented. "So, yes. His façade is everyman, but the thing is, everyman doesn't have a seat at the table of one of the world's great law schools."

In short, the distillation process that goes on when Bill Miller takes a serious look at the world is more or less unique.

"If anybody ever tried to imitate it, it could all go horribly wrong," Hudson said with a laugh.

Miller agreed. Sort of.

"You try and write in this witty, clever style, and of course you want to intimidate your younger colleagues so they'll say, 'Hey, man, if he's losing it, where am I?'" Miller said. "So there's a couple of claims. One, that you haven't lost it yet, or even if you have, you can still kick the crap out of them; and two, you actually had it once to lose. Of course, that could be totally false. The real joke is, I wrote a whole book on being a fraud—Faking It."

That encapsulates the Bill Miller that generations of Michigan Law alumni know and love. He seems utterly self-obsessed without being the least bit self-absorbed. Whatever is going on in his (apparently now failing) mind is instantly on display.

West and former students say his books read less like literature than like roadmaps of the uncharted byways of the Bill Miller brain. One such former student, Sarah Zearfoss, returned to work at the Law School several years after graduating and is now one of the School's senior assistant deans.

"The thing about Miller is, you feel like you know him better than any of your other professors. He's so very, very open about everything he thinks," Zearfoss said.

Now, she says, she's capable of appalling Miller by her mere presence. "That's what's horrifying for Miller—when he first knew me, I was young, and now, well, I'm losing it, too," Zearfoss said.

But behind the kidding and what everybody, especially Miller himself, knows is schtick is the realization that what Miller does—analyzing the baser elements of human nature as experienced by each of us and by every one of our predecessors—opens a valuable window on the study of modern-day law.

"Bloodfeuds is the class that people cite when they want to make fun of Michigan's curriculum," Zearfoss said."But I spent more time thinking about Bloodfeuds than any other class I took. It's about dispute resolution and human dynamics—it's the foundation of the law. Law was invented to resolve disputes. So knowing how people think about disputes is incredibly useful for figuring out how to solve them."

Read Miller's essay on Losing It in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Or, check out the Michigan Law video of Miller discussing the book.

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