Aluminum Doesn’t Ring: Daniel Genis on the Merits of Prison Reading

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

In 1999, Daniel Genis -- an astute, bookish, NYU undergrad -- sold cocaine to an undercover cop and got busted. Genis plea-bargained his way to five years of probation, chalking his luck up to "white privilege," a good lawyer, and "youth."

After graduating a semester early and hacking it at a literary agency, Genis tried heroin. The malignant habit grew into addiction, and forced him into debts with unsavory Ukrainian thugs. He resorted to robbery to pay them off and got busted again. Only this time he wasn't so lucky. Cuffed and convicted, a judge sentenced him to twelve years -- ten of them mandatory -- in federal prison.

The reason any of this matters is because Genis did something highly unusual the moment his sentence began: he hit the books. All 1,046 of them, to be exact. Genis recently signed a book deal with Viking Publishing and is finalizing a memoir that recounts the thousand-plus books he read while locked up in medium- and maximum-security prisons.

It's something of a joke among die-hard bibliophiles to downplay the dangers of incarceration because imagine all the free time for reading. Genis helps dispel that illusion. He wasn't reading for mere pleasure, he was reading for his life. He read for a variety of reasons. He read for emotional asylum and to better understand his inmates. He read for practical knowledge. Most importantly, he read for the sake of his own sanity. Playing both teacher and student, he hunkered down with the discipline of a stern professor and relished his own lessons with an open mind. He became a regular at the prison library, reading an eclectic assortment of books from incarceration memoirs (Abbott, Malcolm X) to classic literature (Joyce, Proust, Dostoevsky).

Recently released, and bemused by the changes to his city (ten years later, touchscreens and gentrification are bewildering), Daniel now writes for The Daily Beast. We caught up with him to get a sense of what to expect in his forthcoming memoir.

Signature: What compelled you to read so feverishly in prison?

Daniel Genis: I needed to make the best of a terrible situation, so I decided I would use the time to extend my education by a decade. Then I realized that I could read for other reasons, to better understand the perverted reality I was living in. But in retrospect, the answer is simply that it kept me sane and saved me from the worst of the psychological assault that is prison.

SIG: Apart from reading, how else did you keep busy?

DG: Well, I also wrote. The entire bag of possessions that I departed prison with was manuscripts and journals; I left my prized radio, my set of Proust and my favorite shank to those who needed them. But I also had a long period when I exercised feverishly, building up an impressive body. That ended when I hurt my back, so I went the other direction and cooked as best as I could, under the circumstances. I spoke with my fellow prisoners, trying to find something interesting about each one, playing at being anthropologist. And I had a few friends. All in all, I was never bored in prison.

SIG: In a New Yorker profile, you noted how “reading in prison allowed me to follow my interests.” Where did your interests lead you?

DG: Austro-Hungary. Colonial Africa. The Russian Far East. Manchukuo. French Brasil. Things quantum. The Kon-Tiki. Over ten years, one can have many interests, and the time to follow them down to the source materials is a wonderful luxury.

SIG: Were there any biographies or memoirs you read that you closely connected with given the circumstances?

DG: I read all of the literature of incarceration, from Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead to In The Belly of the Beast. Solzhenitsyn and some of the other Russian camp writers, like Shalamov and Sinyavsky, were important in teaching me never to feel sorry for myself, as I do not struggle with cannibalism. Primo Levi’s work on the German camps was a similar experience, although I was able to read the Russians in the original language. The American prison memoirs, whether Malcolm X’s or Abbot’s were just a continuation in a long tradition that starts with Boethius perhaps, who wrote while in a dungeon waiting for execution, or maybe Ovid’s works produced in dismal exile.

In any case, I couldn’t just read prison memoirs, of which the 20th century produced far too many. I enjoyed biographies of 19th century figures, like Bismark and Victoria and also those of 20th century monsters, like Mao and Pol Pot and Idi Amin. I read the lives of many writers, and quite a bit on Theodore Roosevelt. Reading the story of the lives of great men can be instructional -- as a youth I read all of Plutarch, which should theoretically have improved me greatly…. In any case, the writings of those who were in situations like mine were often useful. Jack Henry Abbot taught me that aluminum doesn’t ring in metal detectors, for example.

SIG: For many, the popular points of reference on prison come from a Netflix show or a glamorized film. In your mind, are there any pop culture portrayals that actually get to the heart of what prison was like for you? How close to the mark do portrayals of prison libraries get?

DG: I have worked in many prison libraries, which are usually havens for the middle class in prison. I have also read the memoir put out a few years ago by a rather naive prison librarian. In any case, the Netflix show focuses on one out-of-place person struggling with a culture that isn’t hers, while earlier material like Oz or the many films set in prison usually sensationalize the violence with a helping of rape. While I saw echoes of all of these things, nothing can capture the feeling of it. And the medium of film is much more susceptible to offering imagery meant to titillate rather than open a discussion with a reader.

SIG: Aside from offering an escape, what were the tangible, practical values to reading in prison?

DG: I am writing a memoir that demonstrates the answer to that question. I can just say this -- as  literature is written by smarter people than one’s cellmates, unless MENSA gets busted, it can be very useful in making sense of the horrors one is subjected to. Foucault was good on discipline and the effect it has on both punisher and victim. Also, living with monsters, one can use literature to make better sense of them. When I learned I was eating dinner with a Franciscan monk incarcerated for his pedophilia, I read both Lolita and St. Francis’s Little Flowers to understand this man, who was kind, gentle and a threat to children, apparently.

SIG: Of the thousand plus books you read in prison -- which ones do you remember relishing the most?

DG: You are asking for the finale of my memoir. It’s no secret. I made a thorough study of Modernism, which I see as the acme of the literary arts. I devoured Joyce, Musil, Shaw and Kafka, as well as, well, everyone of note. Loved Thomas Mann. In the end, it was Proust who helped me make the most sense of my time, of my life, of life. In search of a decade’s worth of lost time myself, Proust taught me not to be a memory artist, although only 3000 pages in, and to defeat time with art instead.

SIG: Now that you’re out, how has the act of reading changed for you?

DG: Haven’t read a book since I got out. Now is not the time for it. It is the time for writing.