Annenberg Radio

Office Hours with Professor and author Jody Armour

Julia Lin talks to Professor Armour about the books that changed his life.

In episode two, Julia Lin speaks with Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law Jody Armour about how words can inspire social change.


What is the connection between this writing, this word work, and real social change?

Hello, welcome back to Office Hours and spoiler alert: you’re in for a treat today. I’m talking to possibly one of the coolest people in the world, Professor Jody Armour of the Gould School of Law who is not only a lover of reading but also an author himself.

Grab a snack, grab some tea, and come join us. You’re gonna want to listen to this one.

Do you feel like there are any books that changed your life?

Yeah, no doubt. Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man,” still as timely today as when he wrote it. It’s very much about blackness but through an existential lens.

How would you say reading books like that, and other authors, impacts the way you yourself write?

My writing improves a lot when I read good writers. I’ve been very much influenced by a lot of great fiction, Toni Morrison is at the top of my list along with Herman Melville. For me, reading “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved” and “Tar Baby” and “Bluest Eye” and “Jazz” were transformative. They made me think about language differently, they made me think about the power of narrative. I, through her, came to recognize that narrative can be radical. It can create us at the same moment it’s being created because it invites us to share its responses to the world. Any text is an invitation to share the author’s response to the world, an invitation to be a part of a certain kind of community.

I was really intrigued by what you were saying about authors kind of inviting you into community and I’m wondering what kind of person are you inviting your reader to become?

The person I am hoping my readers to become are the kind of people who remove themselves from the moral compass and moral framework that we as a culture and a nation have been embracing for the last 40 or 50 years in matters of crime and punishment and that framework and moral compass has been rooted in retribution, retaliation, and revenge. I want them to move away from that very familiar kind of response to people who commit crimes against others, often harmful crimes — not just victimless crimes by any means — and I want them to occupy a different space. One that embraces restoration, redemption, and rehabilitation as responses to criminal wrongdoers.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of theory in there that builds upon the concepts of binaries and abolition and I’m wondering if there are any books or writers that were sort of like a jumping-off point?

Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. All of the stuff on language owes a lot to Wittgenstein. I’ve always been intrigued by the power of language because my own dad when he was falsely incarcerated for 22 to 55 for possession and sale of marijuana, all he had was language and words as his key out of that otherwise impossible predicament. So that’s what drew me then, ultimately, to someone like Wittgenstein who just studies language, thinks about language. Morrison is another one who said in her Nobel acceptance speech: “We die, that may be the meaning of life, but we do language, that may be the measure of our lives.” It hit me, really, the love of language hit me when I saw what my dad was able to do with language, in getting himself out of prison, becoming a jailhouse lawyer, he got 14 other prisoners out before he got himself out. All he had was words.

What role do you think that books have now and why is it important that people read?

Morrison said that reading is meditation and that sounds to me just so right. With a book, it’s meditation. You can pause on a sentence, you can pause on a paragraph. Just let your mind go. It really is meditation in a way that nothing else is, reading is. There’s nothing like reading. My single greatest accomplishment as a parent, and I’m sure that my wife Frida feels the same way, is that all three of our boys love to read.

How beautiful is that? You can learn more about Professor Armour and his book at his website and thank you so much Profesor Armour for joining us. I want to leave you all with that question he started with: How can we use words to create action and real change?

I’m Julia Lin, this is Office Hours and I’ll see you next time.