The Books Briefing: The Lives Behind the Legal Decisions

What Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fandom knew: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Ruth Bader Ginsburg portrait surrounded by flowers
Samuel Corum / Getty

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last Friday, attracted a fandom like no Supreme Court justice before her. Halloween costumes, Tumblr accounts, films (such as On the Basis of Sex), and books (including Notorious RBG) cemented her cult of personality. For such a rule-following legal figure (carefully rendered by Jane Sherron De Hart in the biography Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life), this meme-ified public image can seem perplexing. But, as the Atlantic staff writer Megan Garber argues, the intimacy of her fandom makes sense given the deeply personal legislation Ginsburg fought for in the Court. Reading her sometimes-fiery dissents reveals both her powerful grasp of the law and her passion for equal rights. Conversations With RBG, a series of interviews with her friend and the Atlantic contributor Jeffrey Rosen, weaves together her personal convictions and her professional mission.

Books about other justices’ lives shed light on the factors that have shaped their legal decisions as well. The Chief, by the journalist Joan Biskupic, considers the evolution of John Roberts’s legal thinking through examining the divide “between his heart and his head.” The political scientist Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas attempts to explain the roots of Thomas’s conservatism, and briefly addresses Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against him. The Age of Eisenhower and Eisenhower vs. Warren chronicle the tempestuous relationship between President Dwight Eisenhower and his chief justice, Earl Warren, during the 1960s fight for civil rights and the Brown v. Board of Education school-segregation case.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Ruth Bader Ginsburg


The Ruth Bader Ginsburg fandom was never frivolous
“SCOTUS makes decisions on behalf of people’s bodies. It arbitrates on behalf of people’s minds. Civic participation, privacy, personhood, parenthood, family, love—these are not arguments; they are the warm facts of people’s lives. The RBG fandom, in its way, recognized that intimacy.”

📚 Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
🎥 On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder
Ruth Bader Ginsburg


The irony of modern feminism’s obsession with Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“[Jane Sherron] De Hart scrupulously renders a rule-abiding, institutionalist, cautious lawyer and then judge who has managed to remake constitutional history precisely because of those qualities, not despite them.”

📚 Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, by Jane Sherron De Hart
Ruth Bader Ginsburg


RBG’s life, in her own words
“In battling illness, sexism, and discrimination, she never allowed herself to be distracted from her path of creating what she called a more ‘embracive’ Constitution—one that embraced previously excluded groups, including women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community—not just grudgingly, as she put it, but with open arms.”

📚 Conversations With RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen
John Roberts


John Roberts’s biggest test is yet to come
Roberts “recognizes, but will never admit, that although politics is not the same thing as law, the two blend together like water and sand.”

📚 The Chief, by Joan Biskupic
Clarence Thomas


Deconstructing Clarence Thomas
“He is the Supreme Court’s foremost originalist—that is, he purports to interpret the Constitution as the Founders understood it in 1789. Yet how can a black man make such a commitment when the Founders wrote slavery into the Constitution’s very text?”

📚 The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin
📚 Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, by Myron Magnet
📚 Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson


Commander v. Chief
“Eisenhower believed in incremental change … Warren, by contrast, recognized that America’s formative pathology—its racism—was a terminal cancer that must be dealt with urgently.”

📚 The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, by William I. Hitchcock
📚 Eisenhower vs. Warren: The Battle for Civil Rights and Liberties, by James F. Simon

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen.

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