[Feb. 2017 Arts] Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s autobiography reveals the mundane side of American politics

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By Claire Dinshaw ’17

 

As the nation prepares to consider the abilities and weaknesses of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s autobiographical book, “My Own Words,” offers the public a window into the thoughts of the already established superstar justice.

A compilation of notes, speeches and articles written by Ginsburg spanning as far back as when she was in middle school, “My Own Words” is not a flashy narrative but rather a slow moving reflection on a life in law. Ginsburg goes to great lengths to show the reader every side of her life and personality, selecting speeches and articles she wrote starting in seventh grade.

Ginsburg’s over-categorization, which chops her narrative into chunky time and topic-based components, such as “Early Years and Lighter Side” and “Women and the Law,” can be distracting and causes the book to move unusually slowly at points. Then there is the repetitive inclusion of the several introductory speeches and opening statements that all seem to reiterate the same messages of justice.

However, it is also this excruciating detail that makes this book special. It does not seek to make the practice of law into some choose-your-own-adventure narrative. Instead, it is a breath of truth in a media landscape that seeks to glorify every aspect of the real world.

By contrasting the mundane aspects of the judicial world with the the exhilarating components of the political world, Ginsburg offers one of the most truthful, multi-faceted views behind the closed doors of Washington D.C. She also offers a well-rounded view into her own mind, the same mind that has made her one of the most prolific Supreme Court justices of all time.

Traversing every medium, from comic play to legal brief, and every topic, from a justice’s social life to the Jewish faith, “My Own Words,” has a few chapters that stand out. In “Wiretapping: Cure Worse than Disease?,” Ginsburg discusses an article she wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun, providing a glimpse into the mind of a developing academic and lawyer. In the chapter, “Gloria Steinem,” Ginsburg goes to great lengths to tell the story of an individual she admired and respected. In “The Role of Dissenting Opinions,” Ginsburg argues the importance of diverse viewpoints, showcasing perhaps her most important quality — empathy, an understanding and willingness to reach out across the aisle and respect the other side.

Ginsburg subtly argues that these qualities of control, modesty and empathy are what have made her a good justice and a good citizen. It’s a message quietly woven into lengthy speeches and articles, but it is a powerful one, especially as the country begins to examine the soon-to-be appointed ninth justice.

“My Own Words” may not be a speed read, but even if someone just has five or 10 minutes to spare, I highly recommend picking it up and reading one or two passages.