Notorious RBG is a hip look at Supreme Courts Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Ever wonder what the perfect pop-culture storm looks like? Check out “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Hurricane Ruth was kicking up a storm among millennials, feminists and across social media platforms before making landfall in Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s biography of the 82-year-old Supreme Court justice.

Just in time for Hanukkah wish lists, the book explores what MNBC reporter Carmon calls the “cautious radicalism” of the formidable Brooklyn-raised Ginsburg — the first Jewish woman to wear a Supreme Court robe and the second woman ever to sit on the high court.

For readers it’s a rare pleasure when serious fun and serious history come together in one book. “Notorious RBG” is chatty and candid, erudite and expansive.

The “Notorious RBG” phenomenon grew out of a blog started in 2013 by Knizhnik when she was a law student at New York University. Knizhnik was devastated by the court’s ruling striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder).

The bright spot for Knizhnik, however, “was the unfettered rage of Justice Ginsburg,” one of the dissenters.

When a friend made a Facebook comment about the “Notorious RBG,” Knizhnik had her aha moment, creating her Tumblr account, a blog where the stylistic trappings of a very different Brooklyn-born celebrity — the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. — would follow other RBG memes with abandon, from “Fear the Frill” to “There’s No Ruth Without Truth.”

Those who relish the story behind the story will find in “Notorious RBG” journalistic heft, historical weight and judicial context — made accessible with colorful cartoons, memes and tattoos.

With RBG love at an all-time high, the biography is a fun must-read that provides a cultural history of the pop culture surrounding an unlikely icon — plus an insider’s look at how Ginsburg handled her own work-life balance, all while helping bring greater equality to more Americans (hint: she doesn’t sleep).

Here are some takeaways from the book.

• Notorious RBG isn’t her first nickname.

First she was Kiki, a childhood nickname Ginsburg acquired from her big sister. Later, at Camp Che-Na-Wah in the Adirondacks, she “acquired the title of camp rabbi,” according to the book. NPR’s legal analyst Nina Totenberg has called Ginsburg the “architect of the legal strategy of the women’s movement” — but Kiki more easily rolls off the tongue.

• She didn’t just succeed in law, she succeeded in love.

Ginsburg married her “beshert.” She has referred to her husband, Marty Ginsburg, as her “life partner” and “best friend.” Their union lasted from their wedding in 1954 to his death from metastatic cancer in 2010. Their union took place just days after Ginsburg’s graduation (first in her class) from Cornell: “There were 18 people present, because in Judaism that number symbolizes life,” Carmon writes.

• Her trainer calls her TAN — shorthand for “tough as nails.”

“A lot of people throw around the word ‘unstoppable’ when they talk about RBG. But they should know that it is literally true,” Carmon writes. “Like the time the justice had a cracked rib, which wasn’t about to stop her from keeping her twice-weekly personal training session.” According to her trainer of nearly two decades, “she works just as hard in the gym as she does on the bench.”

• She’s bold and demure.

During the 2012-13 term, Ginsburg read five dissents from the bench, breaking “a half-century-long record among all justices. Her dissent in the voting rights case was the last and most furious,” the authors write. Reading a dissent from the bench is rare — it’s a way to shout the fact (with decorum) that you find a ruling utterly reprehensible. “Like pulling a fire alarm,” Carmon writes. Ginsburg’s extremely well-worded outspokenness, paired with her steadfast commitment to civil rights, is one of the reasons she has inspired her own iconography and become a viral sensation.

• Clothes may make the man, but RBG’s accessories make precedent.

“Look around her neck. When the jabot with the scalloped glass beads glitters flat against the top of RBG’s black robe, it’s bad news for liberals. That’s her dissent collar,” Carmon writes. (Yes, RBG’s choices in neckwear provide a visual clue to the court’s opinions.) Overall, Carmon describes her aesthetic as “precise, elegant, and at times, unexpectedly audacious.” Just like her opinions.


• Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.

This biblical injunction is inscribed on the wall of Ginsburg’s chambers, and since her teens, she has noticed when the law — Jewish or constitutional — excluded women. When her mother died of cancer (the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation), “at the house on East Ninth Street filled with mourning women, Kiki watched dully, because no woman counted for a minyan … Kiki herself did not count.” While it was Jewish law, Carmon writes, the experience “taught Kiki about a commitment to justice … after her mother died, it took a long time to see herself in the faith.”

• She’s still very much in the game.

A survivor of pancreatic and colon cancer, RBG remains relentless — in all things, including her commitment to the job. This particular bench has seniority seating: Justice Ginsburg sits third from right. That’s not a position she’s ready to give up, despite the near-constant conjecture. So far, she’s never missed a day. “RBG has her own metric for when it’s time to go. ‘When I forget the names of cases that I once could recite at the drop of a hat,’ she said, ‘I will know.’ ”

“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey Street Books/Harper Collins, 240 pages)