Shakespeare in Prison
Shakespeare in Prison
There are any number of inspirational accounts of prison reading (such as Malcolm X), so let’s begin with what doesn’t work. Larry E. Sullivan, the leading scholar of this small but enthralling literary subfield, has concluded that probably the favorite author behind bars is Friedrich Nietzsche, and most frequently quoted sentence, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Convicts also devour crime and escapist literature, but few read Plato, Boethius, Bunyan, or Dostoevsky. And the reason should be obvious. Typically, prison systems work relentlessly to crush the individuality of their inmates. Physical resistance only brings ever-more brutal punishment, so prisoners resort to the one form of rebellion they can get away with, which is to read the most extreme forms of antisocial philosophy: Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche. If you are caged like an animal, these ideologies offer some psychological compensation: you can imagine yourself radically free, infinitely superior to your jailers in terms of intelligence, courage, and authenticity. It all sounds romantically transgressive, but that’s a very costly illusion, because it locks the prisoner into a battle with authority that he cannot win, and amplifies the behavior that got him incarcerated in the first place. Among black female inmates, the counterpart to Nietzsche is “urban fiction,” a new genre where the ubermenschen are inner-city crime lords, as wealthy as they are sadistic. Their women are consistently beautiful, expensively dressed, and obscenely abused. The demand for these novels knows no limit, and they are smuggled in faster than wardens can confiscate them. Their fans want to know why these black-authored books are banned while the equally gruesome thrillers of James Patterson are allowed in, and they have a point. But whereas Patterson is clearly on the side of law and order, urban fiction glamorizes drugs and thugs—and all too many readers admit that they fall for it: . . . “It excites me to read them. I look at all this money they’re making. I can’t wait to see the dollar signs . . . I like how they’re hustlers. How they con someone. It gives me a feeling of oh man, is it that easy? I coulda tried that!” . . .
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