Friday, January 08, 2016

Review: My Beloved World

My Beloved World is Sonia Sotomayor's memoir. Sotomayor was the first Hispanic (and 3rd woman) ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and while I was aware of the politics behind her appointment, I couldn't pass up the chance to read a memoir on her career and path.

I always knew that Supreme Court justices had to be pretty well-qualified, and of course as a minority and woman, that meant that she had to be better than any of the men to be selected. But the book's made me even more impressed. For instance, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 8, and because her parents fought over who would give her shots, she just gave herself her insulin shots.

Born of Puerto Rico parents, she grew up in relative poverty (though I would note that her parents sent both their children to private school, at great sacrifice, whereas an Asian parent doing so would probably be castigated as being "tiger parents"), but despite those disadvantages, graduated with distinction from her school. She was one of the first affirmative action students at Princeton, and she candidly informs us about the jealousy she encountered when other students who had better results were told that they were less likely than she was to get into the Ivies.

She's just as candid when it comes to her first year at Princeton: she found herself under-prepared compared to her classmates when it came to writing, and had to make it up by working harder than anyone else while being subject to a work-study program. All that hard work paid off, however, when she graduated at the top of her class. Even then, being the first in your family to attend college puts you at a severe disadvantage when it comes to navigating the college system:
Felice now looked more embarrassed than ever as she tried to explain that Phi Beta Kappa was totally legitimate. More than legitimate, in fact: an honor of such prestige that she insisted I had to accept the membership even if she had to pay for it. (Loc. 2600-2602)
 But in many other ways, her background also led her to a career path that others of more privilege would have eschewed. For instance, she started off as an assistant DA, whereas the typical career path would be more likely a corporate counsel, or climbing the ladder at a private law firm. To her mind, the amount of money she made as even an assistant DA was so high that it didn't matter that it was the lowest paid of her options. Note that she didn't do this blind: she knew that judges were drawn from people who'd had a combination of public service and private success, so after she'd made her mark as a DA she went for a prestigious private firm and made partner there in a few short years as well.  But it also shows the importance of not getting used to a luxurious life-style when your sights are aimed in a direction of public service.

I was surprised by how little attention she paid to finances. Even as a partner in a private law firm she still had to get help to buy a home. Regardless, obviously the story turned out very well for her in the end.

In the end, I enjoyed her discussion on affirmative action, and her observations on the difference between someone getting in on affirmative action and the privileged entries as being huge, though bridgeable through hard work, good luck, and a willingness to ignore others' rudeness. She does acknowledge that in many such programs the failure rates are as high as 50%, but does point out (quite rightly) that while she might have gotten in on affirmative action, the rest of her achievements could not have been acquired without the huge amount of sacrifice and hard work. Her perspective on this alone makes the book well worth reading.

If you like to make fun of lawyers, she might also change your mind: her perspective is that the law is what structures human society, and is the way you affect human society at scale (as a technologist, I beg to differ, but I can see her point of view). Eliminating inequity, etc., is all achievable by law, and if you have a bleak view of her profession, you can also see how it can also be considered public service.

I also appreciated her candor about diabetes, and health issues. (She admits to being a nicotine addict, and it took her two tries to quit) The memoir also reads easily and doesn't plod. Recommended.
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