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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"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich": The inmate-students were impressed by biographical materials that corroborated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal ordeals in gulag labor camps and his live-to-tell-about-it survivorship. They got this straightforward linear recounting of deprivations and resourcefulness. They were keen on offering their takes on meager food and pilfered parcels and tedious regimens. They claimed to know from hoarding food and sick-outs, from checking emotions and summoning restraint; from endurance and mental toughness; and some do indeed take pride in even the menial tasks they ascend to in the prison work ladder.Skip to next paragraph
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"Falconer": Close to “home” – geographically, drug-wise, and crime-wise. However, John Cheever’s novel didn’t deliver the pace and – strangely – the intricacy and immediacy of "One Day in the Life".... Maybe if Cheever had written about only one day in the life.
"Great Expectations": Talk about going on. But in Abel Magwitch, the great Charles Dickens allows us to consider how a betrayed and bitter man (wrongfully-convicted) can still acknowledge an act of kindness and make good on a debt of gratitude – or something along those lines. However, Pip’s infatuation, longings, and social-climbing – and the whole notion of a gentleman’s great expectations – put me off. He did pay a debt to “society.” If only I could somehow extract just key Magwitch moments (gently out of context) and convey them so as to give inmate-students “portable property.”
"Little Dorrit": And talk about going on, and on. Yet, there are descriptions of the Marshalsea prison, the family life therein, and the consequences of indebtedness and imprisonment that would surely prompt good questions about the authenticity of those descriptions and depictions. If, somehow, I could just mine the right veins in the novel, those excerpts would probably prompt discussions (and written reflections) that would evolve into compare-contrast works. And, inmate-students would probably be intrigued by biographical accounts of how his father’s misfortunes and imprisonments weighed on Dickens.
"A Christmas Carol": Yes!! Chains, shackles, bad dreams – allegorical and real. To some extent, aren’t we all, in some respects, “imprisoned” by regrets, remorse, or, at least occasionally, captive to memories? If visited by reminders and visions of what might be, wouldn’t we seize the opportunity to right things, avoid slights, do better? The inmate-students took this allegory as a gift.
"The 25th Hour": Would the inmate-students be able to identify with, relate to, the characters’ socio-economic situations in David Benioff's story of a drug dealer partying with his friends the night before he begins a seven-year jail sentence? Would they themselves have had an opportunity to put things in order between sentencing and incarceration?
"A Lesson before Dying": This Ernest J. Gaines’ novel might be too pessimistic, fatalistic. The lessons I was proposing would manage to provide some hope; not build on and accentuate resentment and despair.