How Sonia Sotomayor's Memoir Outsold Clarence Thomas's

The charming and intelligent justice has a great story -- one that's been topping bestseller lists for the past month.

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Since its release last month, Justice Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, has earned admiring reviews, successful media appearances, and a steady place at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. So much of what goes on in our national life and public discourse in recent years has been surly or cynical. This inspiring story, notably devoid of self-righteousness, has been a very welcome addition to the literary canon of what many Americans clearly would like to read about ourselves.

I was surprised to learn from Publisher's Weekly that Sotomayor's book is the 354th title written by a member of the Supreme Court. I had not realized how many justices have chosen to reach beyond their courtroom constituency to assess some element of jurisprudence or their worldview, even today, when the Court itself struggles to maintain as much privacy as possible in today's intensely scrutinized legal landscape. But Sotomayor's book sets itself apart from most of the writing of the justices because of its intimacy of message.

She has endured diabetes nearly all her life. Her father was an alcoholic and died while she was still a child. She went to Princeton and Yale Law School without, she says, realizing what it meant to be an outsider in these bastions of meritocracy. She was married young, but soon divorced, and devoted herself to a career on the bench that was distinguished enough to earn a Supreme Court nomination from Barack Obama, whose own life had many of the same outsider features of Sotomayor's. In fact, Michiko Kakutani, chief literary critic of the New York Times, compared My Beloved World to Obama's memoir of growing up, Dreams from My Father.

When she was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2009, Sotomayor was widely regarded as a highly competent jurist who would add to the Court's moderate wing. The fact that she was of Hispanic origin was expected to broaden the Court's cultural breadth.

From all indications, Justice Sotomayor will fulfill those expectations with opinions that are thoughtful and incisive. What we now know is that Sotomayor also came to the court and to national prominence with a determination to make her accomplishments into a narrative intended to move a wider audience. "The challenges I faced," she explains, "are not uncommon, but neither have they kept me from uncommon achievements."

Sotomayor soon selected a literary agent, Peter W. Bernstein (a former journalist who happens to be a friend of mine and who is building a list of sophistication and taste). Only Alfred A. Knopf was approached, and according to financial disclosure reports Sotomayor filed, the advance was $1.175 million. In past pieces, I have been critical of the concept of public figures securing large sums for books as a payday for their service, but I have to concede that I am losing that argument, since virtually no one else seems to object to the practice.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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