Thursday, December 3, 2009

Four Books Saved My Life

I can chart fundamental changes in my life to a handful of books. They affected me at particular moments of my life and altered the way I saw myself, my place in the world, and the potential that I contain for internal and external change.
There was a short time, early in my sentence, when I mistakenly decided that as my crime resulted from an outburst of emotion, then emotions must be "bad". As a result I began making deliberate efforts to suppress my emotions, expending huge efforts of will running around inside my own head to squash them as soon as they appeared. And this was a path destined to lead to either insanity or real, long term dangerousness.
Someone threw me a book, 'Zen Flesh, Zen Bones'. It contained brief explanations of Zen Buddhism, koans and parables. Even as a callow teen, it suggested to me that suppressingemotions was ridiculous and unnecessary. Zen practice offered me a path where emotions were fine, because one needn't be controlled by emotions but rather could accept them whilst being detached from them. Off I went on a 15 year journey into Soto Zen.
Not many Professors would bother reading a letter from a 17 year old in prison, let alone reply, so I have to thank Paul Rogers at Bradford School of Peace Studies for not dismissing me all those years ago.
I had come across his book, the Guide to Nuclear Weapons and it absorbed me completely. This was the height of the early 1980's Cold War, cruise missiles, Greenham Common. I was fascinated and, having spotted an apparent error in a table of Minuteman III ICBM, I wrote to Prof Rogers.
This book sent me off on a binge relating to all things nuclear, mostly legit but some the sort of stuff that would have me under a Control Order if I did it nowadays.

Nuclear weapons led me to nuclear physics and chemistry, mathematics, international relations, politics, strategy, game theory, psychology and history. The deeper one wishes to understand a concept or item, then the deeper one must examine all of its component parts.
Inevitably, I bumped into nuclear safety and terrorism. Theories of terrorism led me deeper into political theory, particularly legitimacy. This led to Peace Studies, which then led to where I am today - active nonviolence.
That was a twenty five year intellectual journey, all flowing from one book. It is also the basis for my theory of education: find what a person is interested in, and from that springboard they will be motivated to learn.
Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is one of my favourite books to take with me whenever I may be slung into solitary. It is masterpiece of writing that I dream to be able to aspire to emulate. He has the remarkable ability of presenting a history of the gulags whilst simultaneously highlighting the overwhelming importance of the minutiae of confinement. Solzhenitsyn reveals the resilience of the individual against the State, in the most appalling circumstances. This is a lesson I can never hear enough of and one that should be propagated as widely as possible. It is the triumph of the human spirit.
Collected Writing of Martin Luther King: If Solzhenitsyn highlights the resilience of individuals against the State, MLK explores the methodology that is able to change the dominant, oppressive source of Power. Another book that I could read endlessly, exploring the internal changes that nonviolent action can provoke as well as revealing the inherent weakness of authority in the face of implacable individuals.
Together these four books have helped me to the spiritual, intellectual and political position that I hold. Without them, who knows what sort of person I could have become?


  1. I read the whole of The Gulag Archipelago as a 17 year old. Our local satelite library in suburban New Zealand had the full set. When in final year English class we did One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I finished it my first thought was 'he had quite a good day, didn't he?'. My classmates were universally horrified. But then I knew all too much about the myriad ways it could have been much worse for Ivan.

    I can certainly see how it would give you solace. Though in solitary I would probably prefer something like a collection of Anthony Burgess books, Earthly Powers, Clockwork Orange and Enderby for comic relief would do nicely.

    I found my destiny, not in any book but in a science class aged 14. We were doing human biology and I found that it went in my ears and my eyes and just stuck with absolute fidelity I didn't want the lesson to end. It was unlike any other subject in that respect and I simply knew this hunger to learn as much as I possibly could. I nearly made the mistake of doing medicine but instead I discovered I could learn what I wanted without that.

    So I agree when you find what floats your intellectual boat you just have to follow it wherever it may lead. The day I learned I had a PhD scholarship was one of the happiest of my life because it meant the search could go on. It has never stopped.

  2. I too found authors of books kindly responsive to a letter from a prisoner which I sometimes sent in hope via the publisher. The monotony and isolation of prison life is almost monastic. It allows deeper thought and revelation. I endorse Ben's comment on education. After experiencing the voracious pursuit of knowledge that (in some sense) you urgently needed, you may feel that all those years in school mechanically following a curriculum were waste. But then, school keeps kids off the streets and allows their parents to work.

  3. Excellent post, very interesting. Made me want to read The Gulag Archipelago.

  4. I wonder if the Professor you mentioned follows your blog? It would probably interest him to now the effect he had on your life.

  5. @Syncpated Eyeball

    Get hold of a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (it is only a short book) and read that. Then bear in mind that the situation can be much worse and Solzhenitsyn is meticulous in his collection of his examples and the statistics. IOW it is not a pleasant read, though it is well written as you might expect.

    I have never engaged with Primo Levi and his accounts of the Holocaust since I don't want two major atrocities in my head, one is enough for one lifetime thankyou.

    So by all means read it, in the full version if you can find it, but be warned you will appalled as you are compelled to keep reading despite yourself. I suspect that it is good that I read it as a callow and resilient youth with little experience of life.