'Solzhenitsyn Was My Virgil'

I read far and wide during my ten-year bit. I read all of the longest works of the world, the thousands of pages of Proust and Musil and Joyce and Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. And I could follow whatever interested me at the time. I acquired a taste for Sir Richard Burton’s 19th century travelogues and read them all. But reading books on prison in prison is a wholly different and even surreal experience.

Prison books don’t work as a safe safari to someone else’s exotic pain when you’re locked up. Reading inside was a way of conquering time, mapping the regions of my new home and understanding what it all meant—no one is looking for armchair travel to hell when they are reading on a cot in a cell.

Solzhenitsyn was my Virgil many a time as I passed through the circles of incarceration. He taught me a personal lesson in bravery. The experience of reading books on prison in prison is rare and compelling. It is one of the only times I can think of when life imitates art to the very bleeding edge of an aluminum shank.

Daniel Genis, writing in The Daily Beast about his experience reading prison novels while incarcerated.

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