1. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu: This is, at least in my experience, one of the most popular books in prison. Before I actually decided to read it I constantly overheard snippets of it in random rec-yard chatter, the speaker always extolling the greatness of the work. Then it started making appearances whenever I conversed with friends about “good books.” Sometimes, I’d get questioned with that surprised voice, you know what I mean, when the person asking the question puts emphasis on every word, like, “You’ve never read The Art of War?” And so I read it, not just because I kept hearing about it, but because it was directly applicable to my life. I saw every single day as another battle in a 16-year war I was sentenced to. Actually, I didn’t just “read it,” I studied it like a college textbook, like finals were fast approaching. Certain phrases, points, and paragraphs jumped out at me, so I memorized them, knowing I needed to learn those lessons. Sun Tzu told me that “The highest realization of warfare is to attack plans,” it’s not always about attacking the enemy, and that “The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known,” and I learned about the advantage of “taking the higher ground,” but, even when almost all aspects of war are in your favor, Sun Tzu insists that you need to “Leave an outlet,” an escape option for the enemy. What? I put the book down and thought about that strategy. I remembered an Old Timer telling me, “The most dangerous man is a scared man who’s in fear for his life. He’ll fight harder than anybody and will do absolutely anything to save himself.” After recalling those words, Sun Tzu’s advice made more sense to me, and I wondered if the Old Timer ever read The Art of War.
2. The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant: Prior to prison I would never have imagined myself reading a book about philosophy. In jail is where I discovered the joys of reading. I mean, I read comic books as a kid and continued reading them into my early teens, but thick books with hundreds of pages did not pique my interest. They just didn’t scream “Fun” to me. And I always thought that reading non-fiction books was more of a scholarly undertaking, something enjoyed by professors and college students, a pastime from another world that could potentially cause narcolepsy. In the brief version of things, “I came, I saw, I conquered” a mountain of books, in prison, and I enjoyed it immensely. Now, we’re still on the brief version of things, so, I wound up in Close Management, which is just a politically correct way of describing extended stays in solitary confinement, and I got my hands on a copy of The Story of Philosophy. I had “heard” of Friedrich Nietsczhe and his Ubermensch philosophy while reading a fiction book by Dean Koontz about a murdering antagonist who liked to spraypaint “Ubermensch” on the walls around his victims. Okay, I’m oversimplifying Koontz’s novel to the point that it sounds ridiculous, which it wasn’t, I’ll have you know, but I must move on, so, if you happen to be Dean Koontz reading this, I apologize for the underwhelming summary of your book. Anyway, I looked for the section of the book that covered Nietszche and found it in the middle. (NOTE: FOR AN OPTIMAL READING EXPERIENCE, NARRATE THE NEXT 3 LINES IN YOUR BEST SHELDON COOPER VOICE) I couldn’t very well start a book in the middle. That would be absurd. I had to start at the beginning until I arrived at the chapter that truly piqued my interest. (NOTE: YOU CAN STOP DOING THE SHELDON COOPER VOICE) And I was glad I read it. I began to understand the allure of reading books on philosophy. The way the philosopher can take you from one simple statement on to a succession of equally simple (and ostensibly undeniable) points to a conclusion so deep, complex and mind-blowing, it’s almost unbelievable that such basic steps guided you there. I’m certain there are tens of thousands of books that could’ve bored me to sleep, forcing me to relinquish my curiosity with philosophy, but I got lucky when I stumbled upon Will Durant. He’s an expert when it comes to explaining the worlds deepest thinkers in an understandable way.
The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi: The samurai who wrote this book is thought by many to have been the greatest swordsman who ever lived. That alone made me want to read The Book of Five Rings. It discussed combat in close quarters, and I was in prison, so, it immediately jumped to the top of my reading list. I was 19 years old, had been incarcerated for 3 years and, since I was serving a 16 year sentence, I knew there’d be quite a few more years before my release, which ensured my days of combat in close quarters were not yet complete. It sounds funny to me now, the way I state it for your reading pleasure but, at the time, it wasn’t a cheerful realization. It was an unfortunate reality, having to constantly prepare for the possibility of sudden bouts of hand-to-hand combat. I don’t remember any direct quotes from the book, but I do remember that Musashi placed much importance on (1) the ability to adapt to different styles and circumstances and (2) maintaining a certain calm in the midst of chaos. The Book of Five Rings is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in war, strategy, and/or close-quarters combat. And it would be in my top 5 if I made a list called “Books Prisoners Should Read.”
*Initially, this post was titled “6 Great Books I Read Inside” but each explanation was more wordy than I initially intended it to be, so, this is the abridged version. I will probably not write another to finish it, so, here are the other books that were on my original list: (4) Awaken the Giant Within, by Anthony Robbins, (5) The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, (6) The Wolf’s Hour, by Robert McCammon (the only fiction book that made the list)