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Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Ruth Bader Ginsburg
You can tell a lot about a person based on what she keeps on her bookshelves.
"It's a map, telling you about the person who put the library together. What were they interested in? What did they read? And you can always see connections, right? One book leads to another book which leads to yet another path of inquiry," Catherine Williamson, a book specialist who runs auction house Bonhams' Fine Books and Manuscripts department, tells PEOPLE.
Bonhams is currently holding a sale of more than 1,000 personal books and other items like honorary degrees, albums that late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg kept at her Washington, D.C., apartment.
Williamson tells PEOPLE the Ginsburg family was connected to Bonhams by a mutual acquaintance and offered the auction house the famed justice's library after her September 2020 death.
"They found institutional homes for a lot of her things," Williamson says of the items, some of which also belonged to Ginsburg's husband, Marty, who died in 2010. "The Supreme Court archives have a tremendous amount of her material. I know that they gave her piano to the National Opera … What we have are the books that were on the library shelves in the D.C. apartment after other things were dispersed to institutions."
Bonhams Catherine Williamson
Copies of Beloved by Toni Morrison, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, S Is for Silence by Sue Grafton and many other literary titles as well as art books, legal textbooks, case studies, reference books, presentation copies from political leaders like Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Vice President Al Gore, her colleagues on the Supreme Court, feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and much more are now available for bidders in the online-only auction until Jan. 27.
When Williamson and her colleagues received the collection, she was pleased to find a few items one would expect a member of the high court to own.
"I was hoping I would find law books. I was hoping I would find books that were important in her career," Williamson says.
"I was really happy to find some of the classic 1970s, feminist texts like Kate Millett's Sexual Politics … and a later issue of Our Bodies, Ourselves, but that's such a landmark, feminist text as well," she adds. "So that was really great to find those and to be able to pull those out and offer them one by one."
During the process of preparing for the auction, Williamson, who was already an admirer of the justice, learned more about Ginsburg's literary tastes.
Bonhams Gloria Steinem's memoir On the Road inscribed to Justice Ginsburg
"I'm not surprised that she liked 19th-century Russian literature, including Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. "Of course she reads the big, smart novels of the 19th and 20th centuries, right? I was surprised to see Lady Chatterley's Lover [by D. H. Lawrence]. I thought that was kind of funny, and J.D. Salinger, too. But they, Martin and Ruth Ginsburg, are in the pocket to have read Catcher in the Rye right when it came out."
Williamson's favorite item in the collection is a copy of Ginsburg's annotated copy of the Harvard Law Review from 1957 and 1958.
"That's the year she worked on the Harvard Law Review, and it was a crazy year for her because it was also the year that her husband was sick with cancer. So she had a baby, she had a husband sick with cancer, she's in Harvard Law School and she's on Law Review," Williamson says. "It has her name on the spine, and she's marked it up, which makes me think that at some point — not perhaps in law school, but at perhaps at some point afterwards — she was using this volume for research. She was using it for some project that she was working on."
The current bid for the copy of Harvard Law Review is $5,500 with six days to go before the auction ends. But not all the items for sale are so pricey.
Bonhams Justice Ginsburg's annotated copy of the Harvard Law Review
"This is 100 percent an auction for everyone. It doesn't cost anything to take a look. So you can certainly go to the Bonhams.com website and see every single lot, even lots that have multiple books in them — they're 10 or 12 books — we've listed every single title," Williamson says. "The price points are all incredibly low. I've noticed that some things are already being bid up a bit, but it is still an incredibly affordable option."
The auction began Wednesday. Williamson says she is already pleased with the response, which began even before the sale launched.
"People were calling, emailing, asking, 'How do I bid?' But we've had a tremendous surge of people registering and leaving bids just in the first day," she says. "That certainly bodes very well."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
For Williamson, who claims an encyclopedic knowledge of American manuscripts and says reading Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice in college changed her life, the sale of Ginsburg's collection of books has been one of her favorite projects in the 20 years she's been in the business.
"Financially it's not anywhere near the biggest. It might be one of the smallest single-owner sales that we've handled," says Williamson, who sold the original Robby the Robot suit from the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Plant for a record-breaking $5,375,000 in 2017.
But for a "super fan" of the widely loved judge, the sale has "been a real delight," Williamson says.
"It has been one of the most meaningful," she says. "For me and for the other women who work with me, all of us who are so grateful for all of the change that she brought about that makes our lives better every day."