“I started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me,” Genis recalled, meaning books on imprisonment: he read Papillon, Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, Gulag narratives by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Albert Speer’s memoir of Spandau, and Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (four pages of which were removed by prison authorities). Then he boned up on authoritarian regimes (“Awful stuff that made me feel better by comparison”): biographies of Pol Pot, Mao, and Pinochet; histories of the Khmer Rouge and the Cultural Revolution; and Goebbels’s diaries. Having entered prison as an atheist with a moral-relativist bent, Genis next took up the problem of good and evil, scouring Pascal, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Crime and Punishment, and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Lubricated with an ample dose of science fiction by William Gibson, Frederik Pohl, and Philip K. Dick—“for relaxation”—Genis’s journal was just getting going.
Related reading: Corey Robin’s “My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read,” wherein he reveals that contemporary, Internet-everywhere life has become so distracting he rides the subway just so he can read:
After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.
I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.
See also: Nicholas Carr.