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Man standing in a fantasy library, with papers swirling overhead
Illustration by grandfailure on Depositphotos

In prison, some people eventually develop a way to cope with doing time. Those who do are fortunate because the ones who don’t end up taking one of two roads: the quick exit (suicide), or adopting a  “who cares” attitude and using violence as a vent for their suppressed feelings of helplessness and despair.

I coped by reading books. Thankfully, I had someone who believed in me and started sending me books. Amy was my teacher from independent studies, which I undertook before my incarceration in California Correctional Institute. When she started sending me books, I was in the hole — in solitary confinement — for two years for battery against another inmate. I had been on the wrong track and had felt lost.

“The Malazan Book of the Fallen,” a fantasy series by Canadian author Steven Erikson, was among the first series she sent me. It was the beginning of my journey into other worlds. I realized my imagination can take me beyond the walls that confined me. 

The series “The Riftwar Cycle,” by Raymond E. Feist has had the most lasting impact on the way I think and how I view the world. The characters are so well written, they walk right off the pages. But what really hit me were the philosophical dilemmas and questions that were addressed.  

One character theorizes that existence is a product of the universe trying to understand itself, that we are all protagonists experiencing reality from continuous perspectives, but we are all essentially “one.” According to the character, we perceive ourselves as separate beings, but in actuality, we are multiple experiences interacting with each other. With each experiencer’s demise, the experience is melded into the whole, thereby creating understanding.

When I read that, it made me see things in a different light. It awakened my interest in theoretical physics and that further allowed me to leave the confines of the concrete tomb. 

I used to have difficulty empathizing with others or seeing other perspectives; reading helped me better understand the way other people see the world. 

The kaleidoscope of characters in the books I have been fortunate enough to read have helped me become a better person, a person who thinks more deeply than I would have without those stories. There is no Hollywood movie budget on imagination. The limits are only those we impose on ourselves.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Luis R. Valerio is a writer incarcerated in California.