Midday Margins Blog: The Reading Life of SD Chief Justice David Gilbertson

Jun 21, 2016

South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson

The first time I interviewed South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson, we were in Pierre, and I was still getting lost in the Capitol building as I tried to gain my bearings.

We talked about the upcoming legislative session and, for whatever reason, I kept wanting to ask him what he was reading. He just seemed like a reader to me – a deep, thoughtful communicator with books.

It’s generally not a great idea to ask a guest what they are reading on air unless you’ve given them fair warning. So I let the distraction pass.

A reading life is, by its nature, a private life. We open a book. We fall in. If we are very lucky, we emerge transformed. Asking someone about their reading life seems like a superficial request, but it’s not. You’re really asking for a glimpse of an inner life – the most private landscape of all.

I waited until we were finished with the broadcast. We took off our headphones.

And then I asked … What are you reading right now?

We talked books for quite a while. The conversation wasn’t recorded, but I remember it well. What I remember most was that for those few moments, neither of us seemed to have anywhere else to be, in spite of calendars clogged with deadlines and appointments.

Even when you talk about books, the world tends to fall away, if only for a moment.

I talked with Chief Justice Gilbertson again this week for Dakota Midday, this time about the Mental Health Task Force. I told him ahead of time that we might talk a bit about reading, if he was willing. He was.

This is David Gilbertson in his signature conversational directness. A snapshot from his inner life shows two authors arguing a case in front of him, the reader. It shows a man who understands how to make up his own mind, his skill in rhetoric and critical thinking honed by decades on the bench. It shows a man who relishes the process.

And, by the way, if you loan Chief Justice Gilbertson a book, he won’t write in the margins, leaving his own trail of musings or revelations. He’ll leave the margins for you to make up your own mind. He’ll expect you to do so with care.

Lori Walsh is the host of Dakota Midday and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.