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The Notorious RBG: From Internet Meme to Required Reading

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 29, 2015 11:58 AM

2013 was a rough year for leftist Court watchers. The Court punted on affirmative action, weakened employment discrimination protections, and cut out the heart of the Voting Rights Act. If there was solace to be had, it was in Justice Ginsburg's steadfast dissents. In two days, she read three dissents from the bench -- an almost unprecedented sign of strong disagreement.

Justice Ginsburg was quickly immortalized as the Notorious RBG by a fawning Tumblr blog. And now that Tumblr has grown into a book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Notorious RBG isn't just an Internet meme anymore -- it's required reading.

From Blog to Book

The Notorious RBG blog was started by Shana Knizhnik, then a student at NYU Law (currently a clerk in the Third Circuit), who wanted to celebrate Justice Ginsburg's place as both a female legal role model and the Court's most badass defender of liberal idealism. The name has stuck, in part because Justice Ginsburg has embraced it. (It even inspired her to study up on gansta rap, she said this summer, though opera remains her genre of choice.)

Knizhnik's blog has grown into a full book, published this Tuesday by Dey Street Books. And while Knizhnik contributed, MSNBC's Irin Carmon takes lead billing, having done the writing and given the book its distinctive voice, The New York Times reports.

The book remains true to its Internet roots. It's "a deeply original mashup of pop culture and serious scholarship," according to Gilbert King, the Pulitzer Prize winner. Chapters are devoted to the Justice's workout routine, her jabots, and lots and lots of Ruth-inspired art. "I don't think the iconic status that she's achieved could happen without social media at all," Carmon told NPR's Nina Totenberg, "because I think the Internet has given young women the opportunity to choose our own heroes."

Not Just a Light Read

Jennifer Senior, reviewing it in the Times, describes the book as "a cheery curio, as if a scrapbook and the Talmud decided to have a baby." That is: it's fun, amusing, but also damned serious.

It's not simply a Tumblr-cum-hardcover for Court-minded Millennials. Rather, it's "an artisanal hagiography, a frank and admiring piece of fan nonfiction" that traces Justice Ginsburg's rise. And a rise it was: from a Harvard Law student denied access to one of the school's reading rooms (no girls allowed), to her rejection from Supreme Court clerkships (again, no girls), to her start as a feminist litigator (Justice Blackmun's diary describes her as a "very precise female." He rated her a C+) and eventually a face of liberalism on the Supreme Court.

It's a story that's effecting, whether your experiences are reflected in Ruth's history or not. Senior writes:

To this female book critic, who will hand in her review to a female editor, who in turn reports to another female editor, this cold universe of belittlement is unimaginable. That I responded so personally to it is a testimony to Ms. Carmon's storytelling and panache.

That's no slight praise for what started as an Internet meme.

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