June 15, 2014

Reading up a Storm in Federal Prison

I like to read. I can’t remember when I first lost myself in a book but it’s just one of those things I grew up with and have always enjoyed. There’s nothing I like more than to spend a Sunday morning on the couch with a book or, in the prison version of the same ritual, in my bunk with a book. Coming in to prison, I just knew that I would spend a lot of time with my nose in a book. If you have interest in my prison advice you will follow my lead and read aggressively.

Admittedly, I was a reader before prison and will be afterward. So it’s really no surprise. What’s truly inspiring are all the inmates – and there are a lot of them – who discover reading here on the inside. I can’t count the number of men who’ve told me they never picked up a book until they stepped through these gates but are now voracious readers. Ok, so a lot of the books I see propped open before lights out might not be great literature – crime fiction along the lines of James Patterson is really popular here in the clink – but I’ve always believed that it’s not what you read but whether your read that’s important. Some prison advice: read books that relate to the obstacles you will face upon relief.

For a long time I lived by my own belief: I read a lot but was not exactly particular about what it was I was reading. Following Justin’s and others’ prison advice, I arrived at prison determined to change all that, to read history’s great literature during my time on the inside: the Greek philosophers, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Rushdie. Nothing unique or unpredictable: just the top 100 or 200 on history’s list of great literature.

In preparation, I gathered up a bunch of books from area thrift shops for my sister to send me. I also prepared a wish list on Amazon of select books for family to send to me. Luckily enough, the prison library also turned out to be well stocked so that my sister hasn’t actually had to send any yet, although I have received a few Amazon books from friends. It’s only been a month but I’m well on my way. I won’t divulge yet what I read – that’s for another post – but I’m keeping a reading list and writing down quotes that move me.

One thing I’ve discovered is that what started out as a task has quickly turned to enjoyment. Although some books are a harder slog than others (sorry Kerouac, but I hated “On the Road”), overall I’m enjoying the greats just as much as my typical light read. Another thing I’m finding is that my circumstances draw me to particular quotes that I wouldn’t have even noticed before. In particular, any references to crime, punishment and prison catch my eye. For example, consider this quote about prison by Steinbeck written now almost 100 years ago but as true today as it was then:

“I’m a-gonna tell you somepin about bein’ in the pen. You can’t go thinkin’ when you’re gonna be out. You’d go nuts. You got to think about that day, an’ then the nex’ dy…That’s whay you got to do. Ol’ timers does that. A new young fella gets buttin’ his head on the cell door. He’s thinkin’ how long it’s gonna be.”

Or how about this quote from Rimbaud about his own inner prison of the mind:

“I still get very bored. In fact, I’ve never known anyone who gets as bored as I do. It’s a wretched life anyway, don’t you think – no family, no intellectual activity.”

Not a very good attitude at all, but as writer Paul Theroux put it, Rimbaud reveled in his suffering, complaining “even as he was rather enjoying it.” There are a lot of men in here like that. If anyone has any other good prison-related literature quotes I would love to hear them.

The point I’m trying to make is that whatever your circumstances, it’s possible to find meaning and relevance in even the most ancient literature. I’m finding that there’s something exciting and thrilling in that discovery, the discovery that despite the centuries that separate us, we still thought in some ways alike. You certainly don’t have to come to prison to discover reading, or the classics. But if you do happen to be following in my footsteps, I certainly do encourage you to consider following my prison advice and become a bookworm. At the least, it’s a way to kill time, a goal not to be scoffed at in prison. At best, it can be an enriching, rewarding experience that can open your eyes and give you new perspective on your experience.

Leigh Sprague


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