Books not Bars

Hola Everybody,
Well, my Mets lost last night and their season has ended. Still, this is a team that overcame tremendous challenges to persevere so, as I see it, it was a memorable and successful season. Until next year.

As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows, I made a commitment to publish at least one blog post per day for the whole of 2016. One of the challenges I face, however, is that I don’t have any of my books or my notes and all the research I’ve done over the years — decades, actually. So it’s hard for me to post substantively on issues we’re facing today. For example, a couple of years ago, I did some research on the history of policing in United States. I would love to do a post on that, but I would have to recreate research at some library (as opposed to my home). Almost everything I own, including two computers full of my work is in storage.

Oh well.

Bibliophilia and Freedom

10-06-16_-books-not-bars

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
— Jorge Luis Borges

 

I still remember the day clearly. It was early spring and it was bright, if somewhat chilly, morning. The man in the cell next to mine was calling out my name. “Eddie, here, you have to read this,” he said. I could see his beaming face through the mirrors we used to communicate with one another. When I began to ask a question, he stopped me and said, “Just read it, Eddie.”

It was a book of four novellas, Different Seasons, written by Stephen King, each novella representing one of the four seasons. The novella for spring, which begins with the epitaph, “Hope springs eternal,” was called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which would be made into an award-winning film many years later. The novella shares several plot points with a short story by Leo Tolstoy called God Sees the Truth, But Waits. Both are about men sent to prison for murders they didn’t commit. One of the more moving passages in the book at the time was, “Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

I have never forgotten that experience — the experience of reading something so validating and transcending while incarcerated in an environment of dehumanization.

I bring this up because I recently came upon an item that, considering my personal experiences, is deeply concerning. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which incarcerates almost 150,000 people, bans nearly 15,000 books. First, what is astounding right off the bat is that Texas incarcerates so many people. That alone should shock you. And yes, Stephen King is one of the banned authors. Also banned are such literary luminaries as Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Shakespeare, James Baldwin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, James Patterson, Noam Chomsky, and countless others.

If you desire to read The Color Purple or Dante’s Inferno? Tough shit. However, Hitler’s Mein Kampf or fans of former KKK leader and white supremacist, David Duke, you are good to go.

I do a lot of public speaking and sometimes my topic is how I was able, with a lot of help from many, many people, to turn my life around. I always point out that art — sublime beauty of an intricate Faulkner paragraph, Monet’s lilies, the magical realism Latinx prose — all that beauty saved my life. Literally. Whenever I felt that life was too ugly, too cruel, all these great artists showed me that in the midst of all the ugliness, there was something worth living for.

On the more practical side, numerous studies show that more education reduces the likelihood of a person returning to prison. And it shouldn’t have to be said that reading in general opens a mind, increases the capacity for empathy, and an appreciation for life in general — all things we as a society should be encouraging in all our people, not just those who are incarcerated.

I actually do understand why criminal justice institutions would ban books or resist educating the many men and women who are locked up in cages, wasting away. They do so because we have created an industry based on the subjugation (enslavement) of mostly black and brown people. There are jobs connected prisons (mostly jobs for disaffected whites) and profits to be made from neo-slavery. And I am not being hyperbolic here. Slavery was never fully abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment — it exempts those who have convicted of a crime. In fact, right after the Civil War, new laws targeting black people were passed and immediately prisons overflowed with the caged bodies of black men. Many scholars and advocates, myself included, see mass incarceration as a logical progression of slavery — neo-slavery.

But I digress. I see no reason why great books should be banned from prisons. We should be adding books, not taking them away. I’ve rambled here, so please excuse me. I will leave you with one last excerpt from Shawshank:

Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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