I recently stumbled upon a new book that caught my attention; Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates. Who could resist such a provocative title? I must admit that as a librarian I already subscribed to the notion that books have the power to change lives, so the author was preaching to the choir. However, this book made me think about a lot of things, not the least of which was the U.S. prison system.
The author writes about her many years leading discussions with prisoners (hard-core murderers, often in solitary confinement) about the works of Shakespeare. One student in particular, Larry Newton, a lifer in the Indiana Federal Prison, convicted of murder while still a teen, proved to be a particularly astute student, identifying with the characters as they struggled with many of the same issues that he faced on a daily basis.
The thing that touched me most about this book is that it illustrated that every human being has a spark waiting to be ignited. Having no possibility of ever being paroled, Larry used literature to develop self-worth and discover meaning in his life behind bars. After being exposed to Shakespeare he began taking college classes in prison and eventually wrote a textbook for other prisoners.
His life was not without set-backs and disappointments, but it is clear that having a teacher who viewed him as intelligent and thoughtful and having a challenging and intellectually stimulating course of study to pursue gave his life purpose.
The book was intriguing on many levels. It demonstrates the power of human compassion and encouragement, illustrates the benefits of reading, and raises important questions about the American correctional system. (For example, during Larry’s graduate studies the state of Indiana eliminated funding for college classes for prisoners—raising questions about punishment vs. rehabilitation.)
If you have ever doubted that books can change lives, or just want to reinforce your conviction that they can, pick up this book. Another book that makes a strong argument for the power of story in our lives is Joseph Gold’s Read for Your Life: Literature As a Life Support System. Or if you want to learn how to get the most out of your reading, try How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. All of these titles will increase your enjoyment of and appreciation for reading.