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What books to assign to a group of inmate-students?

Dickens or Denisovich? Mailer or Malamud? This professor agonized over the reading list for a class of prison inmates.

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"The Executioner’s Song":  Norman Mailer wrote so powerfully that some find the murderer Gary Gilmore “heroic” for insisting that his execution be carried out without a protracting series of appeals and lawyering delays. Okay, but what bothered me was Mailer’s role in hyping "In the Belly of the Beast" and obtaining parole for the book’s author, convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott – who, six weeks after his release, committed another murder. No go.

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"Invitation to a Beheading":  I don’t get Vladimir Nabokov. Yeah, okay, he learned English really well. But somebody at the DOC or, more likely, some inmate would find out about "Lolita"... I found that book irredeemably “icky." As for "Invitation," flap copy speaks of “a dream country” and “a vision of a bizarre and irrational world.” The copy also speaks of the imaginary crime of "gnostical turpitude,” “chimerical jailers,” and the condemned prisoner’s ability to make his executioners disappear, “along with the whole world they inhabit.” Naaah.

"The Stranger": Too strange. I wouldn’t be able to explain Albert Camus’ thinking, the defendant’s indifference, or whatever it is, the defendant’s responses and his failure to respond and react as one might expect of someone accused and then convicted of murder. Too strange.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman":  The title would raise eyebrows – in a men’s prison, in any prison. Besides not being able to confidently pronounce Manuel Puig’s surname, and not wanting to get into the politics that are elemental to this time-and-place story, there are the intra-cellular taboos and surrenders that... Enough said.

"Darkness at Noon": “Who is this Rubashov?” “What’s he in for?” “What did he do?” “Where is this?” I’d have to do a lot of research to do justice to the questions Arthur Koestler's masterwork would be likely to inspire in inmate-students. In classrooms without maps and reference books (or maybe just a few random volumes from an ancient encyclopedia), I would be tasked with explaining the ideological and social tensions, along with the political context and military history. Didn’t want to have to explain Stalinism. 

"The Fixer": Inmate-students would pick up on many of the novel’s depictions of injustice, indignity, and degradation, and would surely have something to say about wrongful accusations, unrelieved interrogations, intrigues, and betrayals. However, absent a lot of background and context, I wondered if even the most intellectually curious inmate-students would fully grasp what Bernard Malamud was trying to say about the pogroms and prosecutions of Tsarist Russia and the scapegoating of Yakov Bok.   


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