Sometimes I think I should be reading something a bit more cheerful, but as Jay-Z says, you are who you are playa. So let me recommend two really good books I’ve read lately on violence, crime, and punishment.
Ted Conover’s Newjack is an award-winning account of his year spent as a prison guard at Sing Sing. I saw him tell a story from this book at a Moth reading a few months back and ran right out to the library to get it. Newjack is scary, sad, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing. You won’t look at this country’s penal system the same way again after reading this. Nor will you stop hoping that we can change it into something that doesn’t dehumanize everyone involved with it.
Conover’s book led me to James Gilligan’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. Where Newjack contemplates American brutality strictly at the personal level of inmates and their guards, Violence approaches the subject from multiple angles: psychological, sociological, historical, and mythical. Violence is sprawling and ambitious and sometimes redundant in presenting its thesis that shame creates violence, but there’s so much great stuff in here that it’s well worth the effort. As with Newjack, Violence deepened my understanding of the “inevitable” savagery of our species and – perhaps best of all — makes a convincing case that we can do something about it.