August 17, 2014

"A friend of mine who, early in her law school career, realized she hated law, but..."

"... was too failure-phobic to drop out, used to say, as we toiled away at document review and the like, that she gladly would have spent the three years she 'wasted' at the law firm to pay off her law school debts instead in a debtors prison, so long as they allowed her sufficient reading material. I found her logic difficult to refute."

That's a comment by Wasteland Fan on a post of mine — "Sometimes I envy people who are in prison simply because they have a lot of free time to read" — from October 2005. The post title is a quote from a blog that's not public anymore, so the link is dead. And I see that Meade – my now-husband, whom I would meet a few years later — is the second commenter on that thread.

Anyway, I was reading that post as a consequence of some searches I'd been doing this morning after embedding "Prisoner's Song" on a post about walls and open floor plans in interior design. "Prisoner's Song" is the one with the line "Now, if I had the wings of an angel/Over these prison walls I would fly/And I'd fly to the arms of my darling/And there I'd be willing to die."

Imagine wanting prison so you could be free. It makes sense if, when you're truly free, you choose things other than reading, and what you want is to be freed, through imprisonment, from the ability to do the things you're free to do when you're really free.

It occurs to me that there must be a song with the line "I'm a prisoner of freedom," and there is: Edie Brickell's "Me by the Sea." Close enough is the Ronnie Milsap song, "Prisoner Of The Highway" ("Call me a prisoner of the highway/Imprisoned by the freedom of the road, yeah.")

It's an old theme, isn't it? The Onion came up with: "Kidnapped Teen Freed, Though Freedom Is Its Own Kind Of Prison, Is It Not?"
“This rescue was made possible through the coordinated efforts of law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels,” said Sheriff John Montague, who, yes, helped to rescue Paulsen from the torment of her human captors, but is she not still subject to the psychological imprisonment we all experience as beings endowed with moral agency? “We have arrested two male suspects and are questioning them at this time.”

According to police reports, officers searching a home on the 1400 block of West Depot Street in Bedford found Paulsen locked in a bedroom in which she was allegedly held against her will, although of course this inevitably begs the question as to what kind of “will” she possesses now that she has been released, beyond the unwanted, unasked-for burden of self-determination? Moreover, how is “will” defined in a greater universal sense, and how is it altered in light of the vagaries of life in a secular, post-industrial Western civilization?
No word on whether the teen had a good selection of reading materials.


Tank said...

How does sitting in a debtor's prison "pay off her law school debts?"

She would be "free" and shifting the loss to others.

pm317 said...

Imagine wanting prison so you could be free.

Free from what, having to earn a living? I think the whole idea is ridiculous -- 'imprison me so I can read' and the state will feed me and take care of my bodily needs.

YoungHegelian said...

What does a society do with a surplus of "bookish" individuals?

Before the 20th C, a sizable fraction of the population in Catholic countries was bound to the Church in a religious order of some sort. I think we need to revive this practice.

I see on the FB group page of my alma mater young graduates who seek to do well by doing good, not realizing that by doing well themselves at a non-profit they are essentially taking food out of the mouth of the corporate mission. When the RCC structured its orders around vows of poverty, chastity, & obedience, it knew from hundreds of years of experience what it took to make a charitable organization run in a self-sufficient manner.

I tell my friends about this idea that many of them should be in a religious order and they laugh because the thought of a vow of chastity horrifies them. As if they ever were party animals.... I mean, hells bells, judging from Martin Luther's complaints about clergy-only brothels in Renaissance Rome, and the Medieval Cantigas de Sancta Maria oft-used trope of wayward nuns having their babies delivered by the Blessed Virgin, maybe my friends would have had better sex lives under orders.

Ann Althouse said...

You know who read a lot in prison? Hitler.

m stone said...

I think The Onion got it right. yet again.

Zach said...

You know the trouble with prisons? No quality control.

No sooner have you sat down to write your Great American Novel than you meet your methhead, neo-nazi cellmate. And you realize that real estate agent in the judge's chair might have skipped over some important details.

Alex said...

I hear prisons are lovely these days. You get TV, gym, Bubba.

Freeman Hunt said...

I can't believe I missed this before:

"You know, I started to go on a retreat once. It was a group of Episcopalians, in the early 1980s. We were in a van driving to the place and a woman started to smoke. I asked her not to smoke and confided that I was pregnant. Everyone in the van told me I was being unreasonable. I gave up and asked to be let out. As they let me out on the West Side Highway (where I, a pregnant woman, would need to walk a long deserted block with my suitcase to get to a place where I could hail a cab), one woman told me that I ought to think about how Christianity requires me to be unselfish. I've had kind of a bad attitude about retreats since then."

Ha ha ha! said...

"Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"

John henry said...

Samuel Johnson once described being in the Navy as "Like being in prison with the additional risk of drowning"

I've served on a Navy ship and it is somewhat like that. Nowhere near as bad as prison but very regimented, no freedom of association, do what you are told when you are told to do it (sometimes by unreasonable people).

But I did read a lot since other than that or poker there was nothing else to do.

In a sense I see the appeal. I was responsible for doing as I was told with very little need to think or otherwise shift for myself. I got 4 meals a day, a place to sleep clothes and a bit more.

I completely understand why a lot of people like this kind of life.

John Henry

Robert Cook said...

"What does a society do with a surplus of 'bookish' individuals?"

That's not a problem America has ever had to consider, and never less so than now.

Bob R said...

I have no sympathy with the whole notion of "paradox of choice." Nothing against those who wish to be constrained. It's just completely foreign to me. If I want to read, I just read. Sure the idea of having no distractions - no TV, no internet - has some attraction. But the idea that I'd be FORCED to do without them, and enjoy it. Not for me. If I want no distraction, I can rent a cabin with no connections. But the car would be outside so that I could drive away. I just have no desire to voluntarily give up freedom of choice. Those who would do so, I kind of think of as (unfashionable word) perverted.

The Godfather said...

I've never been in prison, but I have been in law school.

[Add your own ba-da-bing punch line here.]

I've told young people (and their parents), who are wondering whether they should go to law school, that if they can stand the first year, then they are cut out to be lawyers. A normal person would run away screaming, but for someone who is "called to be a lawyer", it's food for the . . . well, not soul exactly, because a lawyer doesn't have (or need) that, but for whatever that thing is lawyers have instead of a soul. I don't know how it is for law profs.

John Stodder said...

Longtime readers of this blog might faintly remember that I spent a year in prison -- 2011.

I made a list of all the books I read that year. Some my wife ordered from Amazon, some were from the prison libraries where I served my time, and some were just books lying around that I read out of desperation. The True Blood book is one of the latter.

1. Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West – Hampton Sides
2. The Practice of Poetry – Robin Behn
3. Peace is Every Step – Thich Nhat Hanh
4. Summer of ’49 – David Halberstam
5. The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
6. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood – Jane Leavy
7. Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart – Stefan Kanfer
8. The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History and Culture of Clouds – Gavin Pretor-Pinney
9. A Splintered History of Wood – Spike Carlsen
10. The Values and Craft of American Journalism: Essays from the Poynter Institute – Roy Peter Clark and Cole C. Campbell, editors
11. When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan – Peggy Noonan
12. Willful Blindness – Virginia Heffernan
13. Beethoven: The Universal Composer – Edmund Morris
14. George Washington: The Founding Father – Paul Johnson
15. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis – Aleksandr Fursenko, Timothy Naftali
16. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 – Tony Judt
17. FDR – Jean Edward Smith
18. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – Benjamin Franklin
19. Arguably – Essays by Christopher Hitchens
20. Twentieth Century Pleasures – Robert Hass

Fiction & Poetry:
1. Vanity Fair – William Thackeray
2. Selected Poems – Theodore Roethke
3. The Winds of War == Herman Wouk
4. War and Remembrance – Herman Wouk
5. The Wapshot Chronicle – John Cheever
6. Above the River: The Complete Poems – James Wright
7. Death is a Lonely Business – Ray Bradbury
8. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
9. For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
10. L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy
11. Collected Poems – Phillip Larkin
12. Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian
13. Slaughterhouse-5 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
14. Jailbird – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
15. The Human Factor – Graham Greene
16. The Instant Enemy – Ross MacDonald
17. The Chill – Ross MacDonald
18. The Stories of John Cheever – John Cheever
19. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
20. A Question of Belief – Donna Leon
21. Acqua Alta – Donna Leon
22. Shutter Island – Dennis Lahane
23. Club Dead – Charlaine Harris

My favorites were "Vanity Fair," the two Wouk WWII novels, the Chabon, "Summer of '49," and the Wright and Roethke poetry.

I also read from the prison library dozens of poems from a couple of old poetry anthologies. Plus, every day, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and every week The New Yorker and the Week. My bunkmate got National Review and the Limbaugh Letter, and there were always copies of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the nearly-nude girlie magazine American Curves lying around.

D. B. Light said...

The whole idea of debtors prison was to force the debtors' friends and families to pay up to set him free. Early incorporation laws were instituted to protect investors from the possibility of going to prison for debts incurred by the company in which they invested.

Anonymous said...

@ John Stodder

Thank you for that post. A peek inside an experience most will never share.


Brando said...

The idea of being in prison sounds great if you assume you're going to have time for reading and your fellow prisoners and guards are nice or at least not horrible people. But that's the rub, isn't it?

Of course, prison is probably pretty neat for violent, intimidating people who have their own gangs there already. It'd be sort of like sleepaway camp!

Paco Wové said...

"she gladly would have spent the three years she 'wasted' at the law firm to pay off her law school debts instead in a debtors prison"

I think she was unclear on the concept of "debtor's prison". In general, you don't go to debtor's prison instead of paying your debts; you got to debtor's prison until you pay your debts. It doesn't sound like she had an alternate plan for raising the cash while doing all that reading.