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Review: Each essay in `Fight of the Century’ packs a wallop

“Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases,” Avid Reader Press, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

The essays in “Fight of the Century” may be brief, but each packs a mighty wallop.

Brief is the name of the game for drawing readers into a compendium that holds this much heft. For in these pages are works of immense importance, covering landmark U.S. cases, primarily before the Supreme Court, that were argued or supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Edited by authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, the book commemorates the ACLU’s 100th anniversary.

That’s 40 of the top writers of our day wringing meaning and magnitude out of these prominent court cases. Some of these authors take a deeply personal turn to describe the impact of their respective court case, while others illuminate their case with enhanced details and insights.

They are forceful, beautifully written and often humorous essays. Many are damning of our society as it has been, and in a few instances, as it remains today. Many share the author’s personal experience around a court decision. None of them have dust: These authors put pen to paper in the past two years. The immediacy lends a freshness and relevance to the anniversary compendium.

Some of the better-known cases are here: Chabon clearly enjoyed his telling of the 1933 landmark United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” in a ribald explanation of the history and its critical players. Yaa Gyasi, author of the award-winning “Homegoing,” ensconces the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in her own Alabama childhood of sustained segregation and challenges the United States to do better. Author Aleksandar Hemon writes effectively about the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia from the perspective of his birth nation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and via his personal story.

Filmmaker Steven Okazaki puts a personal spin on Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 case that challenged the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and lost. Okazaki describes the fallout from this internment for an entire community and the prejudices that continue to this day.

Author Dave Eggers minces no words in his review of Escobedo v. Illinois, the 1964 case that laid down Sixth Amendment protections for accused people under police interrogation. It was followed a few years later by the landmark Miranda v. Arizona, also addressed in this book, which requires that defendants be informed of their rights to an attorney, and more. It’s a thoughtful, challenging and not-hopeful essay as Eggers describes the changes that need to occur to limit forced confessions.

And one more: Author Scott Turow excoriates the ACLU for its support of Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 case that found election-spending limits violated the First Amendment right to free speech. “And tying political rights to wealth is so wrong-headed, so deeply unfair and unjust, that it is hard to believe that an organization dedicated to ‘civil liberties’ could ever have adhered to those views,” Turow writes. It’s a complicated, relevant issue, and Turow makes an impassioned case for the ACLU to change course.

The other essays in this anniversary compendium – written by heavy hitters such as Salman Rushdie, Ann Patchett, Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich and Viet Thanh Nguyen – are no less edifying. This is a book to read, share and keep.

Jennifer Forker, The Associated Press