NOVEMBER 30, 2016
“LAW SHOULD BE a literary profession,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says in a decade-old interview with Bryan A. Garner, a leading scholar in legal writing. The interview appears, feels, and sounds even older, perhaps because of its quality. The camera — and therefore, the viewer (you and I) — is physically close to Justice Ginsburg, but watching feels less like a stodgy lecture than FaceTiming with a good friend. A static hums in the gray office with books and papers on a desk, and Justice Ginsburg, dressed in red, sits center stage. This intimate experience focuses on her thoughts regarding writing. In the interview, Garner states that many consider Justice Ginsburg to be one of the best writers on the Supreme Court today. He asks: “Do you work hard at it?” She smiles. “Very hard,” and explains, “my eye is on the reader.”
Two new books introduce Justice Ginsburg with different audiences in mind. My Own Words is a compilation of Justice Ginsburg’s writing, from early childhood to present day. Each selection is accompanied by biographical introductions written by co-contributors, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, both professors of law at Georgetown University. While this work serves as an introduction for an adult audience, I Dissent, by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, targets younger readers, illustrating powerful morals through Ginsburg’s story. No one is too young (or old) to begin learning about this pathbreaking figure, and both books admirably take up the task.
My Own Words is a unique text. When my sister asked what I was reading, I first answered “essays,” and then corrected, “a biography”; after finishing the book, I again changed my mind, a “reader” — not unlike those I would consult as an undergraduate student when I wanted to expose myself to a new author or line of thought. The book is an RBG reader, culling her essential, important, and oft-personal writing into one contained volume, each piece framed by relevant background information. The essays are curated into sections, including Justice Ginsburg’s early years, her tributes to way-pavers, her thoughts and work relating to gender equality, and on becoming a justice. Of course, most of this material is already publically available. For instance, Justice Ginsburg’s “Advice for Living” was recently published in The New York Times and her dissents and law review articles can be found with a little Googling. Nonetheless, the book’s thoughtful organization provides a clear lineation. Many of the essays are also condensed for clarity and context — as indicated in the footnotes by Harnett and Williams — further enhancing the volume’s readability. Adding to the experience are photos of Justice Ginsburg from her early childhood to present day.
For ardent Notorious RBG fan-girls (present company included), the essays will strike as classic Justice Ginsburg reading. For newer devotees, the collection provides an accessible and engaging introduction to a formidable feminist icon. We learn about Justice Ginsburg’s identity as a Jewish justice; develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between law and opera; and peek into the inner mechanisms of this country’s highest court. Her husband Marty Ginsburg’s speech “How the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal Got My Wife Her Good Job” is included along with many of Ginsburg’s speeches — from her Rose Garden Speech to her opening statement to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary to a more contemporary speech on Belva Lockwood — which are seminal highlightings of the pioneers who made her career possible. The biographical snippets elegantly trace the evolution of Justice Ginsburg in the legal world, but they also left me wanting more, and I was thrilled to learn from the introductory remarks that Harnett and Williams are working on a RBG biography. Still, within these pages resides Justice Ginsburg’s essential legacy, and the book should be part of an RBG-enthusiast’s library, as well as required reading for any young feminist.
But how to introduce the littler people in our lives to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? I Dissent is an adorable book, and provides an easy introduction to Justice Ginsburg and her role as a civil rights champion. The book follows Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life from her roots as a tenacious, young girl in Brooklyn to her work as a lawyer to her present-day work on the Court. The star of I Dissent, however, is not the text, but rather the illustrations.
While the text excels in emphasizing how and why Justice Ginsburg should be a role model for young children, and certainly fulfills its intended job of providing an overview of Justice Ginsburg’s life, the writing is oftentimes downright clunky. For instance, when talking about Justice Ginsburg’s clerkship, Levy states that she “worked like mad for [the judge].” I do not know any four- to eight-year-olds who speak that way (or any adults for that matter), and the slang-y nature of this phrase is jarring, detracting from the durability of the book. I Dissent also devotes a substantial amount of time discussing prejudices — as it should — but it never defines what a prejudice is, especially not in terms that younger readers can easily grasp.
In contrast, the illustrations are consistently excellent. Each illustration paints a vivid and striking scene. For instance, when discussing Justice Ginsburg’s work as an appellate attorney appearing before the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg is drawn as a small figure before a large, looming all-male Court. Another example is of a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a law school student, flanked by all male students, bright and thoughtful and framed by the phrases “She Resisted” and “She Persisted.” These sketched-out phrases give newer readers catchy quotes to remember. Readers — young and even not-so-young — will be drawn into these engaging scenes.
My Own Words is an intimate book with lasting endurance and appeal where the sense of responsibility Justice Ginsburg ascribes to pursuing justice radiates from each page. I Dissent takes on the important task of introducing newer readers to this role model. Both books provide new lenses with which to see this formidable, inspirational icon.
Justice Ginsburg is currently the most senior liberal justice on the Supreme Court. Her remarks about President-elect Donald Trump (a phrase that still evokes — and probably will never stop evoking — denial and dread) placed her in the hot seat earlier this year. But those same remarks struck voters like myself as truth that needed to be spoken. Those remarks cause me to wonder how she feels about the four years ahead. Although for a briefest moment, we had within fingertip’s reach the possibility of a liberal Court led by Justice Ginsburg, a people’s Court, this is no longer the case. The election and its outcome has dashed so many of our dreams for a stronger, more inclusive United States, a United States that upholds the values for which Justice Ginsburg fought — and continues to fight.