Professor of tax law Sigrid Hemels likes to read books that tell a story. Don’t ask her to identify deeper layers or analyse the books she has read. She found it quite liberating after leaving secondary school not to have to read books that way any longer. Alice in Wonderland and its slightly less famous sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (And What Alice Found There), by Lewis Carroll are books that contain everything she wants from her reading materials. “A special atmosphere, travels to an unknown world, beautiful phrasing and even tax-related matters. It’s all in there.”

Hemels found the two books on her mother’s bookshelves when she was a child. She uses the Cheshire Cat (‘a grin without a cat’) presented in the story to explain the concept of fiscal unity to her first-year students. “Alice in Wonderland is not just a children’s book. It can present us with something new at every stage of life. My mother bought it when she was twenty-three.”

She herself gifted the book to the first PhD student she supervised. “Being a PhD student is a wonderful world in which many surprising things happen and eventually everything turns out well, exactly like it did for Alice.”

Sigrid Hemels is a professor of tax law at the Erasmus School of Law, as well as a visiting professor at the Lund University School of Economics and Management in Sweden. She also works at the Allen & Overy law firm in Amsterdam. Her research focuses on things such as government grants for the arts and culture sector, which was the subject of her PhD thesis. In Sweden Hemels conducts research on the position of women in income tax. She writes a monthly opinion piece for Financieel Dagblad.

An unexpected arrival in a tax haven

Alice meets her new world with an open mind, without any intentions or goals. Hemels herself is not the kind of person who meticulously plans out her life, either. She became a tax expert ‘by accident’. After leaving secondary school, she embarked on a degree in Arts and Culture Sciences at Erasmus University. In her first year at uni, she took an Economics of the Art Industry course, which prompted her to wonder after successfully completing Year 1: “Would I be able to study economics?” She decided to take the plunge and switch to a different degree programme. Five minutes into a Fiscal Economics course, she realised she had found her niche. “Taxes are such fun. This is what I want to be doing.”

Taxation is a subject that is often discussed in films and literature. “Maybe I’m more primed to notice it now.” In her lectures she likes to cite books or films to ‘provide a different take on the subject matter’. This year she opened her lecture on tax law for first-year law students with a quote from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: “Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

Reading behaviour

Favourite genre: novels

Most recent read: Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler by Oliver Hilmes

Number of books read annually: 25-30

Main reason for reading: “Being in a different world, a different story, is fabulous.”

Reading is time off

Hemels was an avid reader even as a child. She has a well-read mother and a father who reads newspapers’ literary supplements from back to front. When she was seven, her parents took her to classical music concerts, where she was allowed to read in the concert hall, until that time she was so entertained by a story that she burst out laughing in the middle of a Mozart concert. “After that I was never allowed to read during a concert again.”

As a child, she would negotiate with her parents about the number of books she was allowed to bring on holidays. “One time I brought a whole box of books, and I had to remind myself not to read more than one book per day, so that I wouldn’t run out of things to read.”

Now that Hemels goes on holiday with her boyfriend, the luggage they bring in their car still includes a bag full of books. “As soon as we reach our destination, I’ll find a place to display all our books. It’s quite the privilege to be able to stand in front of that collection and decide which book I’m going to read.” When she visits a city or goes hiking in the mountains, she will always bring a book in her bag. “I’d hate to never be able to read again. It’s the greatest leisure activity I can think of.”

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