25 March, 2008


[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow,"  "In Memory of Monuments," "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper," and "Only a Fleeting Thing." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
It is freeze dried and comes in a resealable yellow bag that proclaims "100% Colombian." Conveniently omitted are specifics, as though, at least where coffee production is concerned, the country is peerless in its inability to do wrong. The dubious provenance becomes all the more worrisome at first taste, which assaults with a body of what can only be described as meatiness before fading to a distinct note of soy sauce. Could they have been rejected beans from another, more finicky brand? Do the fields in which they were grown lie adjacent to a reservoir of industrial run-off? Does Monsanto have a presence in Colombia? (An absurd question; never mind.) Assuming nothing, this terroir is still a terror.

The canteen sells four brands of coffee — Taster's Choice, Folgers, Nescafé, and this yellow-bag stuff. It's all instant, all representative of varying degrees of unpleasantness, but this one is by far the most popular. Price plays a larger role than palate; most inmates will spring for the high-dollar product when they're flush with funds. Personally, I am not enthusiastic about any of it. My first two years of captivity were determinedly caffeine-free specifically because my elitist taste buds insisted they were too good for such swill, that dump-and-pour would reduce me to some kind of oral paroxysm that would leave my poor tongue flaccid and useless in my mouth. Better, I thought, to go without.

At some point, however, I broke down. So much time had passed since a truly decent coffee had touched my lips I wondered whether the difference wouldn't just go unnoticed, as if all that gourmet Guatemalan could be expunged from my sensory memory by anything short of catastrophic brain damage. I sipped and winced like an alcoholic resorting to mouthwash, but, all the same, I did sip.

Of course, there was guilt: What would my barista say? There was even a nightmare about coming clean to friends at a celebratory dinner, opening up with prison horror stories.

"So after the stabbing on the yard, even though I knew it wouldn't do my stomach any good, I went straight to my cell for a hot cup of coffee, some music to lose myself in. I couldn't believe what I'd just seen."

"Oh my god, that's awful."

"It was. I mean, it happened right in plain view but nobody seemed to care what was going on. The guy was covered in blood, and —"

"No, I meant about the coffee. You actually drank instant?"

To which my only possible reply, like some sad, grizzled veteran defending wartime atrocities, was, "If you had been there, you'd understand."

09 March, 2008

The List

In a "Talk of the Town" item from The New Yorker's 28 January issue, much was made of the reading list of folk-rock icon Art Garfunkel. Since 1968, Garfunkel has kept a record of every book he's read — all 1023 of them, all in chronological order. Given today's profusion of frantic schedules and the apparent decline of interest in the written word, his average of just over two books a month is laudable and impressive. It also got me thinking about my own reading habits and why I've not kept a list of my own.

Having taken to avid reading at a young age, there have been very few times in my life when at least one book was not to been seen atop my desk, beside the bed, or in my hands at some stage of mid-read. By age twenty, keeping my bookshelves from overflowing was already a struggle: if left to the voracious acquisitiveness of my literary appetite and perpetual willingness to learn, the shelves would become unruly and start to bow under the weight. Every few months, with a judicious eye, I would grudgingly pull the titles most recently purchased, and weigh their importance, and ask the hard questions. Do I absolutely have to have this copy of
Common Sense? Will I, at some foreseeable juncture, need to reference The Dragons of Eden for any reason? It pained me to regularly say goodbye to so many wonderful books, but the local used-book vendors loved me.

When my selection diminished nearly seven years ago, a result of what I call my "abduction," the escapism of literature became correspondingly more tantalizing. I've since read several books I'd never otherwise have considered, which is not necessarily a bad thing. T.K. Kennett commented once that those of us who do not read that which we might find objectionable "are no better than those who cannot read at all," and I happen to agree. (A couple of dime-store novels never killed anyone, even if reading one sometimes might feel like a slow death.) Certainly a few have broadened my horizons in thoroughly enjoyable ways.

Reading about Art Garfunkel's voluminous list inspired me to compile my own, retroactively. Friends are always asking what I'm reading, and they are almost as often surprised that a prison library should be so well appointed (though never quite well enough, if you ask me). The list that follows is incomplete and, instead of chronological, ordered alphabetically, as it was brought forth entirely from my imperfect memory. It covers only the years of my incarceration. Also, it does not include any title I did not read in its entirety, simply because listing such would be disingenuous. To appease curiosity and, perhaps, to show off a little, here is my imperfect list. Thanks for the inspiration, Art.

* * * * *

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe • Life, the Universe, and Everything • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish • Mostly Harmless

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties

Dante Alighieri (Elio Zappulla, translator), The Inferno: A New Verse Translation

Isaac Asimov, It's Been a Good Life

Andrew Behrman, Electroboy

John Biguenet, The Torturer's Apprentice

David Blaine, Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic

David Bodanis, Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Arthur Bradford, Dogwalker

Dan Briody, The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group

Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske, Howard Hughes: The Untold Story

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors • Dry • Sellevision

James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

George Carlin, Brain Droppings • Napalm and Silly Putty

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Dan Chaon, Among the Missing

Clay McLeod Chapman, Rest Area

Susannah Clark, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama • 2001: A Space Odyssey • 2010 • 2061 • Imperial Earth • The Fountains of Paradise

Billy Collins, Nine Horses: Poems

Eddy Joe Cotton, Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America

Jim Crotty, How to Talk American

Deborah Curtis, Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division

Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions

Cathy Day, The Circus in Winter

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Phillip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said • VALIS • Counter-Clock World • The Man Who Japed • The Zap Gun

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground • Crime and Punishment

Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo • The Three Musketeers

Umberto Eco, Baudolino

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Stefan Fatsis, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players

David Friedman, The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and The Daring Quest to Live Forever

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera • One Hundred Years of Solitude

Martin Gardner, Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?

Mary Ladd Gavell, I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly

William Gibson, Neuromancer • Idoru • Mona Lisa Overdrive • Pattern Recognition • Spook Country

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Stephen Jay Gould, I Have Landed

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

John Gribbin, The Birth of Time:How Astronomers Measured the Age of the Universe

Richard Hack, Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos, and Letters

Daniel Hall, Under Sleep (poetry)

M. John Harris, Light

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time • The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe

Robert Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon • A Door into Summer • Friday

Ernest Hemmingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Frank Herbert, Dune • Dune Messiah • Children of Dune

John Hodgman, The Areas of My Expertise

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America

Franz Kafka, The Trial • The Castle

A.L. Kennedy, Original Bliss

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Dennis Lehane, Coronado

Jimmy Lerner, You Got Nothing Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Matthew Lewis, The Monk

Russ Madison, Chapter 11

Roger McDonald, Mr. Darwin's Shooter

James McKean, Quattrocentro

Peter McWilliams, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

Cornelius Medvei, Mr. Thundermug

China Miéville, The Scar

Adrienne Miller (editor), Esquire's Big Book of Fiction

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Haruki Murakami, After the Quake • Kafka on the Shore

Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind

Anaïs Nin, Henry & June

Wendy Northcutt, The Darwin Awards: Evolution in Action

The Onion, Our Dumb Century • Finest News Reporting

Susan Orlean and Robert Atwan (editors), The Best American Essays, 2005

George Orwell, 1984 • Animal Farm

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club • Lullaby • Choke • Rant

Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Michael Paterniti, Driving Mister Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Terry Pratchett, The Thief of Time • The Fifth Elephant • Night Watch

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Harvey Rachlin, Jumbo's Hide, Elvis's Ride, and the Tooth of Buddha

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with your Future

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead • Atlas Shrugged • Anthem

Fredrick Reuss, The Wasties

Richard Restak, MD, The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety Is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love

Yasmina Reza, Desolation

C.S. Richardson, The End of the Alphabet

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

Phillip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint • Goodbye, Columbus

Davy Rothbart, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Salman Rushdie, Fury • The Moor's Last Sigh • Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 • The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Marquis de Sade, Justine

Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are (with Ann Druyan) • Contact • Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Actual Innocence: Five Days to Executin and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted

Nina Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus,

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things

Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man

K.M. Soehnlein, You Can Say You Knew Me When

Dana Spiota, Lightning Field

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Lesley Stern, The Smoking Book

Mark Strand, A Blizzard of One (poetry)

Darin Strauss, Chang and Eng

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit • The Lord of the Rings

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero-Tolerance Approach to the English Language

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court • The Diaries of Adam and Eve

Jules Verne, Mysterious Island • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle • Slaughterhouse-Five

Brad Watson, Last Days of the Dog-Men

H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds • The Time Machine

Elie Wiesel, And the Sea Is Never Full • Night

Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature • Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Mark Winegardner, That's True of Everybody

Richard Wolfson, Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified