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The Power of Books in Prison

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The first time I read Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward I was in the hole for inciting a riot. At the time, I'd served only the first ten years of my life without the possibility of parole sentence. The stark scenes of medical torture performed in dismal Soviet hospitals paralleled my surroundings so perfectly I could see the pain and death detailed in the book.

For those of us who desire to move past the ubiquitous Westerns and pulp fiction romances, and navigate around the endless procession of telephone book-thick fantasies that fill prison libraries, the pickings narrow down to a trickle. To experience literature, one must join the various semi-secret societies of serious readers who trade better books amongst themselves.

Prisoners tend to fall in love with the darkness of Russian writers, and I'm no exception. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment figures prominently on my list of books to read on lockdown. Raskolnikov could be living down the tier from me. And I, too, have endured endless, tortured nights of remorse and regret.

Montaigne's Essays came to me one day from a fellow traveler who insisted I read them all before I attempted to write even one more slice of prison life. I understood immediately why the form is attributed to him, and why his mark is the one to aim for.

Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, a masterful account of some of the most ancient fossils ever recovered, forever altered my perception of life as I knew it. Inside of my cell, I could smell the broken rocks of the Burgess Shale. I wondered with him at the miracle of such an explosion of fragile life on a still cooling planet. Our common patrimony that I could never again take lightly.

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning bored through my conceptions of good and evil. I read his account of a horror so vast as to be incomprehensible, but I understood it just as I'm sure he wanted me to. I got his most profound message too, that no matter how horrific life may be everyone retains within them the power to choose their own response. Prisoners of the state, no matter our guilt or innocence, are faced with a reality that seems overwhelming. I spent much of my first decade inside flailing away at my own sense of impotence. After this book, I was transformed.

A beautiful and insightful woman once told me my life had a circular quality. When I was a young boy, before a chain of bad decisions and horrible outcomes marooned me in prison, I had a love for books. The last summer I lived with my parents, I read an entire set of blue, faux-leather clad encyclopedias, cover to cover, every volume.

In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can't conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.

I've been out of the real world since phones had dials and real computers filled up whole rooms. I read enough to know that some believe the internet will devour book and render them obsolete. My perspective is colored by the fact that the internet, and the rest of the electronic world, is banned from prison.

I remember reading about paperless offices in an idyllic future time where everyone would know everything instantaneously. But knowing and understanding are two distinct classes of thinking. Books won't go away because we are tactile creatures who derive our sense of the world from all of our senses. I'm sure the Internet, all of the electronic frontier, is a wondrous place. No doubt it's brought tremendous benefits to modern life. Ready access to an ocean of information has to be empowering. I would hope that out of this great connected synthesis will emerge new levels of wisdom. Perhaps even that one world of unified purpose and intent dreamers and visionaries have tried to wish into existence for centuries.

And, I suspect, if that ever happens the blueprints will appear in print, to have and to hold.

Until then, I'll continue to read all I can and try to craft sentences that describe my world for the benefit of readers who may weigh them in their hands or consider them on screen of pixelated light. Either way, it's ultimately the words that matter most.

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If you're interested in more about the realities of living in maximum-security prisons, in whatever form you enjoy best, read my new memoir, Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars, published by Atlas & Co.