A Prisoner’s Reading List

by Rachel Baker on July 8, 2014

This is an amazing read from the New Yorker about a prisoner and the books he read while in prison. The list of books he’s read is probably something most readers only wish they could get through, but only sit on the bottom of book stacks everywhere.

Genis has lived in a dozen maximum- and medium-security prisons, a ringside seat to the pageant of the American penal system. While incarcerated, he clerked for a rabbi, took up bodybuilding (only to injure his back), witnessed a race riot and a murder, watched a man attempt to drown himself in a toilet, and ate a seagull prepared by a prison gourmet. He got to know Michael Alig, the “club-kid killer”; Robert Chambers, the “preppie killer”; and Ronald DeFeo, Jr., who murdered four siblings and his parents and inspired the novel “The Amityville Horror.” Mostly, though, Genis read. “Days in prison have a sameness to them, and my most meaningful and frequent conversations were with authors,” he said. He kept track of the books in a journal. Recently, he allowed me to peruse a stack of loose, mismatched pages crammed with his small, neat handwriting. Each book is numbered and described in entries that are essayistic yet succinct, a form Genis attributes to the uncertain supply of writing paper in prison. He finished the last book on the list—a memoir by Alig, which he liked—in January.

“I started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me,” Genis recalled, meaning books on imprisonment: he read “Papillon,” Dostoyevsky’s “The House of the Dead,” Gulag narratives by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Albert Speer’s memoir of Spandau, and Ted Conover’s “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” (four pages of which were removed by prison authorities). Then he boned up on authoritarian regimes (“Awful stuff that made me feel better by comparison”): biographies of Pol Pot, Mao, and Pinochet; histories of the Khmer Rouge and the Cultural Revolution; and Goebbels’s diaries. Having entered prison as an atheist with a moral-relativist bent, Genis next took up the problem of good and evil, scouring Pascal, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, “Crime and Punishment,” and Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger.” Lubricated with an ample dose of science fiction by William Gibson, Frederik Pohl, and Philip K. Dick—“for relaxation”—Genis’s journal was just getting going.

Here’s the Article:
A Prisoner’s Reading List

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