The friendship of books

Author: | 19 Jul 2021

The books which got me through.

Here for Longford Blog ex-scholar Dempsey shares his reading list of inspirational books which helped him to survive prison and remain ‘friends’ to this day.

Since books are about stories, let me first of all, briefly, tell you about me. Briefly I promise! I went to prison at 18 and came out at 57. Almost four decades behind prison walls.  Books truly were my salvation and inspiration during those years of imprisonment.

In darker moments, as I moved through the ages of man, the stories and the people in them offered not only company, but self-education and ultimately rehabilitation.

Perhaps this may be something others who’ve turned to books for for solace and escapism in the pandemic will recognise.

After my release in 2017 I was lucky enough to continue studying literature in an academic setting, thanks to the Longford Trust. So I want to share some observations of three pivotal books that stay forever with me. I hope what I have to say will strike a chord as much for those who have never stepped inside a prison as those who have been incarcerated.

One of the most influential books I read is an adventure upon the high seas titled Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Moby-Dick is a big, adventurous book that explores themes as profound as evil, religion, destiny, insanity, and race.  The themes are considered and examined through the eyes of Ishmael, a young man who decides to see a bit of the world by joining a whaling expedition.  Captain Ahab leads the search for a white sperm whale who bit off his leg and it is here, in Ahab’s monomaniacal desire to have his day with Moby-Dick, that the story gives rise to its major themes.  Ishmael views his time spent aboard the Pequod whaling ship as an education comparable to a tenure at Harvard or Yale, and his education grows during various incidents such as when he finds himself below deck staring into the ship’s tryworks, and after almost losing control of the ship he’s supposed to be above deck steering, Ishmael reflects: “…do not give thyself up to fire, least it invert thee, deaden thee, as for a time it did me…”   And how many times in our lives have we all, in some form or manner, become undermined by staring too long into the blast furnace of existence.

Another book I found that lessened the sting of incarceration is a classic story of adventure and misadventure that was written—perhaps by feather and ink—in 1605 by Miguel de Cervantes and famously known simply as Don Quixote.

Prison life is nothing if not tedious. Boredom is the surest companion to anyone inside. I longed for adventure, a chance to break free from my ball and chain and get out and do something, anything other than what I typically did from one dull day to the next.  I therefore found plenty of adventure and excitement through reading this book, here, in my opinion, is why.

The known world of routine corruption and commonplace disruption is what Don Quixote seeks to escape by immersing himself in books of knights in shining armour, blue moon romances and a deluxe edition of grand illusions.  With most of his mind stuck in the last book, or most of the last book stuck in his mind, Don Quixote summons his loyal servant and true friend, Sancho Panza, to accompany him on a horseback adventure across the badlands of La Mancha, Spain in search of good times, good vibrations, and goodness knows what else.  In the stratosphere of classic world literature, Don Quixote is the ultimate tale of adventure. The fact is that happiness—as we instinctively know and sometimes forget—is not an ideal of reason but of imagination.  With long reins in one hand and longer sword in the other, Don Quixote strides tall in the cowhide saddle of his bull-headed imagination to do battle with windmills and sheep and Little Bo Peep.  Sancho Panza tries to reason with the befuddled Don Quixote but to no avail.  The man of La Mancha is large and in charge.  He is, at bottom, the man of La Mancha and a man who will inspire you to straddle your horse and set your sights on grand adventure before sorrowful dementia.

I guess that for someone who has been behind walls for more than half my life, I could dare to say I’m qualified to comment on prison literature.

Of the huge number of books on prison life, fiction and nonfiction, Stephen King has to be the author who gets it most right.

Rising from the fertile imagination of Stephen King are daylight demons that twist and turn into midnight monsters who slip, slide, peep, and creep knee deep through the mist and moonbeams of your troubled dreams.  Primarily a master writer of things that thump before they bump in the night, King is just as skilful in transcending the horror genre to create ordinary stories which give way to extraordinary circumstances.  Hence Different Seasons.  A quartet of novellas as varied in tone, temperature and feel as the four seasons to which their titles correspond.

Although each tale carries the weight and disturbance of a tombstone, one story in particular rises above the others to carry the weight and resonance of thunder.  “Hope Springs Eternal: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is a 1940s rough-side-of-the-mountain story of the penitentiary and its brutal personalities, brutal intentions, and brutal injustices.  Longing, hope and perseverance flow through the tale as resoundingly as the midnight rumble of a distant freight train throughout moonlit cell blocks and mingling with dreams and recollections and memories of a better day, better time, better place.

“Shawshank Redemption” is memorable because at its core it is a love story.  Not sexualized romantic love, which is as fleeting and fragile as faithfulness, but genuine love which is genuine friendship, love without wings.  Two prisoners forge a perfect friendship in an imperfect place that allows each to see themselves and one another through days of desperation seemingly without end.  A genuine friendship is what lends this story a rainbow elegance while providing a subtle reminder that you can count yourself lucky if you find and keep one good friend in this world.

Prison is many things, lonely and boring among them.

Yet books became my true friends throughout my imprisonment and here in my post-prison life, still are.