Books are Awesome (Returned Citizens go to Berkeley)

The New Yorker has a piece on formerly incarcerated people going to UC Berkeley. It’s long and interesting, with many good tidbits about life in prison, life in college, structural obstacles, but also genuine opportunities. 

But I want to quote a few bits on how awesome books are. This is Murillo.

At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

Candide! Voltaire changed this man’s life.

Here’s Czifra:

The one good thing about solitary in Y.A. was a big box there containing hundreds of books. He read until all that was left was a volume of Shakespeare, with four plays in it. At first, he found the language nearly impossible to understand, but he had nothing else to do, so he kept at it. He gradually realized that it was better than anything he’d read before, and he looked for more. He decided that his favorite play was “Richard II,” because of the way it forced you to confront a disagreeable man-child who ruined his life and killed people, and yet, by the end, made you feel compassion for him. When he finished with the Shakespeare, he wrote to a librarian, who sent him ancient-Greek literature in translation. He read Milton and Wordsworth and Dickens.

Also interesting, if less happy, is the white supremacist read of Shakespeare.

Czifra started reading Shakespeare because it happened to be in the Y.A. book box, but adults in prison tended to read Shakespeare for a different reason. Shakespeare plays were handed around by white inmates to bolster racial pride, being a testament to European culture. “Julius Caesar” was a favorite—Caesar had many lines that they felt expressed their code, such as “I love the name of honor more than I fear death” and “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” White inmates tended to think of themselves as imprisoned warriors, like modern-day Vikings, and they particularly liked violent epic sagas, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf.

There’s a lot here on reading, on self-reflection, on the examined life. I am struck, as I so often am in these narratives of class, race, and literature, how we’re designing higher education to make sure that if you want to read Candide, you either have to be rich (and go to a rich liberal arts school), or be in jail and have nothing but time.

You shouldn’t have to be in solitary to encounter Richard II. But also, for those who are in solitary, let’s make sure that we keep funding educational opportunities even as we try to decarcerate America.

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