The road to becoming a Supreme Court justice is paved with legal briefs, opinions, journal articles, and other written works. In short, you’d likely never get there without a strong writing voice and a knack for clear communication.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned these skills from one of the best: Vladimir Nabokov. Though most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita, the Russian-American author wrote countless works in many more formats, from short stories and essays to poems and plays. He also taught literature courses at several universities around the country, including Cornell—where Bader Ginsburg received her undergraduate degree in the early 1950s. While there, she took Nabokov’s course on European literature, and his lessons made an impact that would last for decades to come.
“He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence,” Ginsburg said in an interview with legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner. “To this day I can hear some of the things that he said. Bleak House [by Charles Dickens] was one of the books that we read in his course, and he started out just reading the first few pages about the fog and Miss Flite. So those were strong influences on my writing.”
As Literary Hub reports, it wasn’t the only time RBG mentioned Nabokov’s focus not only on word choice, but also on word placement; she repeated the message in a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him,” she wrote. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”
While neither Dickens nor Nabokov were writing for a legal audience, their ability to elicit a certain understanding or reaction from readers was something Ginsburg would go on to emulate when expressing herself in and out of the courtroom. In this way, Nabokov’s tutelage illuminated the parallels between literature and law.
“I think that law should be a literary profession, and the best legal practitioners regard law as an art as well as a craft,” she told Garner.