Intro. [Recording date: September 15th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is September 15th, 2020, and my guest is author and poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. Dwayne is the founder of the Million Book Project, a project to put a curated collection of 500 books in over a thousand prisons in the United States. The project is supported by the Mellon Foundation and is part of Yale Law School's Justice Collaboratory. Dwayne's memoir of life in prison, A Question of Freedom, was published in 2009. His most recent poetry collection is Felon, published in 2019.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing the Blackwire 5220 for today's conversation. And I want to let parents know that this episode may include conversation that is inappropriate for children.
Dwayne, welcome to EconTalk.
Dwayne Betts: It is my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the Million Book Project. How did you conceive of it, and what is it?
Dwayne Betts: Yeah, I think it's interesting, really, because when you aren't incarcerated, certain things that you can have in abundance, you don't understand what it means not to have it. And, so books are really the main thing that I'm referring to. And, I just remember when I was in prison, I was probably 17-18, and I was in solitary confinement. Now, I was already in a prison that didn't have a library. But, now I'm in solitary confinement and books are literally contraband. I remember being in a hole; and we had set up a sort of underground network of book sharing. You ask for a book and a person would send you the book. You might not know who they are. You might not know what cell they were in. You might've never seen their face.
And, it was wild, because, like, the floors, their cells were parallel. And, so somebody would have to lay, literally, on the floor with their ear to the ground to slide the book from their cell to yours. And, somebody slipped me this book called The Black Poets by Dudley Randall and it was an anthology of poetry. And, I read that book. And, soon as I read the work Ethridge Knight, I decided to become a poet.
Russ Roberts: Etheridge Knight, correct?
Dwayne Betts: Yes, Ethridge Knight. And, the wild thing--and he sparked my interest in poetry because he was doing what all of the other great poets were doing, but he had also served time in prison, and it just made me believe that it was possible for me to be a poet.
But, now you fast forward, you know, 20-some-odd years, and I publish a book and my book is in hardback, first of all. It's $30, second of all. It's a print run of a few thousand or so. It's just unlikely it'll never be in any prison in the United States. Right?
And, I say, 'Well, what does it mean, actually, to have a lack of access to so much great work?' And, how can I encourage access and encourage books to function in the space of incarceration in the same way that books function in a space of my life as a free person, but the lives[?] of people I admire?'
And, it's books are center to my life. And, so, I conceptualized a Million Book Project as a way to say, 'What if we curated 500 books?' Which is really a decent few years of reading. I mean, theoretically, it could be 10 years if you are a slow reader. In prison, it might only be three or four years.
But, the point is that it's a decent education. And that presence of those books on a housing unit to fundamentally change how people conceptualize the time that they're doing.
You know, you always recognize that it's punishment. A person knows that, they understands that, but if you put this structure in their sight every day, it really does just become an opportunity.
And, so, I had been in conversations with people to create a sort of Freedom edition of Felon, a paperback version that I would give away to 20,000 people. And, as a part of those conversations, you know, somebody pushed me, and said, 'Twenty thousand books is great, but what would you do if you could do more? And, what would you do if it wasn't just focused on, like, your book and giving people your book?' And, I was like, 'Well, we put 2 million people in prison. I will put a million books in prison.' And there you have it.
Russ Roberts: And, we're going to get into the details of that for a minute, but give listeners a little of your past. I finished your memoir last night, A Question of Freedom, and it's an incredibly powerful book. As I said, it was published in 2009, but it's particularly timely today. And, we'll talk about that I hope later on in the episode. But, what were you doing in prison? How did you get there?
Dwayne Betts: Yes. My son is downstairs. He's doing a math homework. He's doing school through Zoom and he's--
Russ Roberts: He's eight years old, right?
Dwayne Betts: Well, now this is--my youngest is eight. My oldest is 12. And, so, fortunately my youngest could actually go to school. And, my oldest he's one week on, one week off, but I just went down there, saw him to check on him, man. And, it's just, wow, thinking about how young 12 is, and what does it mean? Like, what is: What is the things that you're exposed to mean for who you are?
And, I tell this story--I've probably told this story a thousand times, and I always want to find a way to tell it that it's like, I'm not making an excuse. So, I'll just come out first and say, I carjacked somebody when I was 16. I went to a mall in the suburbs in Virginia. I pulled out a gun on somebody and I took that car. And, I was with a friend. My friend was 15 and we both got incarcerated. My friend got sentenced to 8 years; I got sentenced to 9 years. We both pled guilty. Carjacking in Virginia carries life. And, so we pled guilty, not knowing how much time we would get. And, we stood in front of a judge and could have very well gotten a life sentence. And, I'm really grateful and blessed to be, like, I only got nine years, which is an absurdity in a sense, right? But, I have friends I talk to now who, similar crimes, still locked up and locked up for 20 years. But, um, yeah, I pled guilty. This was in the 1990s. You could get tried as an adult. And you can still get tried as an adult. But back in the 1990s, it was really automatic if you had a carjacking, a rape, or a murder.
And, so I was automatically tried as an adult. And I spent eight and a half years in prisons across Virginia.
And, I mentioned my son to start, because I was just so young, you know. And nobody ever--I mean, we really have no reason to talk to children about what should be impossible for even an adult to do. But it's just terrifying to me really to think that my kid is barely, you know, younger than I was when I was in a penitentiary. And, it's just, like, a cruel and depressing thing to know. Such is life.
Russ Roberts: And, you were a successful student, as a kid. You didn't--in your book, you say that carjack was the first time in your life you'd held a gun in your hand. You made a mistake. And, the book is a really poignant, powerful exploration of that mistake. Almost in search of an explanation. But, of course, the human heart is--I like to quote, Faulkner. He talks about the human heart in conflict with itself. I think that's an apt description of your experience as a teenager, then.
So, you go through this--you do something which was horrible. And, then you go through something horrible. And, books play this crucial role for you. Did they play a role in your life? Or describe what kind of role books played in your life before you went into prison?
Dwayne Betts: Yeah, I mean, you know, I was a reader. And I was one of those readers who wasn't--I realized something about myself as a parent. Myself as a parent has made me realize something about myself as a child.
So, as a child, my mom had books, but she had books that was really kind of a leisure activity. I mean, it wasn't a line item in her budget, right? But, books are like a line item in my budget. You know what I mean? I got like a thousand books in this room right here. My kid has--I mean, we didn't have bookshelves in my house growing up. And, I just thought about bookshelves as a piece of furniture that exists in some people's lives and not others. But, I mean to say that, I had books. My mom was a reader, but it wasn't the same way. It wasn't a conduit to something. It was just something that I felt was necessary, but that I wasn't really aware of all of the potential and possibilities of books.
I think some of my greatest finds were being at the house of friends--you know--James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe. I would see things on the shelf of people I knew who went to college and think, 'Oh man, I should be reading that.' I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. Because I was into books.
Walter Mosley. I mean, I read every Walter Mosley book. It's funny, because I didn't know that hardback books got published before the paperback version. And, so, my mom would get me, she'd be like, 'Oh, Walter Mosley has a new book.' And, I would get the paperback, not realizing that this new book was a year old.
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Dwayne Betts: And, I hadn't--they don't teach you and they didn't teach us in my high school to pay attention to the copyright page. I mean, one, because if you only reading dead writers, the copyright page doesn't matter that much. It didn't really matter what year Tom Sawyer was written. That's not one of the things that a 13-year old should be perseverating over.
But, if you talk about contemporary writers, it's kind of important to know, where does Paradise sit along the arc of Toni Morrison's life as a writer? Right?
But, I didn't know that. I just thought the book came out when the book came out. And, it's wild though; because, when I went to prison, what happened was--uh, man, we become things for the stupidest reasons. And maybe it's not stupid. Right? But, it was sort of like--Man, I distinctly remember it. Everybody has a response to tragedy.
And I get sentenced--the judge says--he sentenced me to--so, it was a mandatory minimum of, what was it? It was a mandatory minimum of 15 years for carjacking. And, so then it was a mandatory minimum of five years for robbery. And, then it was a mandatory of three for the gun. So, no, it was a minimum sentence of 15 for carjacking, a minimum of five for robbery, and a mandatory minimum of three for the gun.
So, the judge sentenced me to a minimum of 15 for carjacking, but he suspended nine and then he sentenced me to five for the robbery, and the mandatory minimum of three for the gun. And, then he ran the six and the five concurrent. But this is not a word that you should know at 16. It's just no reason necessarily for you to know the word 'concurrent,' right?
And, so I could count, though. And, so, I'm like 6, 5, 3, man, 14 years. I'm going to be 30 years old when I go home. And, I just couldn't--you know, I just, I don't know. I couldn't understand it.
And, I was in a holding cell though. And, I was telling myself--this is the absurdest response to that kind of news. But, I told myself, 'Well, I'm going to be a writer.' I was like, 'I'm going to be a writer.' Because I thought, 'I got all of this time.' And, I don't know why, but my mind immediately went to, like, 'Well, what will you do with your life? What will you become?' And, I had made this decision to be a writer, not knowing--if you would've asked me to actually, are you going to be a fiction writer? Are you going to be a novelist? Are you going to be essayist? Are you going to be a poet?'
Like, had you asked me those questions, you might've scared me. And, I might've just been like, 'You know what? I'm just going to be a mechanic.' I might've just got nervous. But there was nobody for me to articulate the aspiration to.
And, so, there was nobody to discourage me and there was nobody to ask me sort of qualifying questions or clarifying questions.
And, so, anyway, once I decided to be a writer, books became--I read them because I thought it was going to make me a writer. And, I just read everything. And I read it wildly; and I read all of the time; and I'm certain that I spent eight and a half years in prison, I read something every single day, and for more than half of those days, I completed something. I finished a book, I finished a short story, I finished a chapter. But every single day saw me reading something and finishing something and imagining writing something similar.
Russ Roberts: What did your fellow prisoners think of that habit? Were you unusual? unique? You talk about how people or certain cultures, different prisons you're in, of watching soap operas in the afternoon or cartoons on certain days. But, you were not the only reader. But, how was that perceived?
Dwayne Betts: Yeah, I mean, you know, people tended to--first of all, I felt like I was on the bottom, so I didn't care how I was perceived. Like, I was in prison at 16 and made my mom just weep. You know. And I didn't think there was any lower that you could go to being in prison.
And, I didn't feel like I did it simply to prove things to friends or be like friends. I wasn't really trying to blame friends. But I sort of felt like if I want to sit down and read this 500-page fantasy novel at this point, ain't nobody going to shame me into anything. You know, like: I'm already doing this time.
And, so, I don't know. The way people perceived it is people they minded their business. And a lot of people were readers in prison. The question was just: What were they reading? how much did they read?
A lot of people read for leisure, so they'd pick up a book and they might take a month to read it. They might take two months to read it. But it was just something that was there, like, a companion to them. [More to come, 14:48]
And, then for others, it just meant more. I think about it the way that some folks interact with, like, dogs. They love to see a dog on the street. And some people just like to look at the dog on the street, and some people go up to a stranger dog and, like, ask, can they pet it? You know. And, then even in the petting it, some people, like, really into it; and they, like, playing with it and smiling.
And, your, like, 'Do you have a dog?' And, they're like, 'Nah, I don't have a dog.' It's like, 'You seem like you want one.' 'Nah, I just get my 10 minutes in, my two minutes in, and then I leave.'
I feel like some people treat books the way they treat that kind of relationship. And, you know, for me, man, I will say that people looked at my relationship with books as a marker of my intelligence. And, they, you know, called me professor, called me a poet--and--well, not really a poet--but called me professor, mostly called me teacher.
And, it was the first time I think that people really, just the act of reading actually, like, shifted the way people saw me in the world.
And, it's funny, too, because it was in prison. And, you think that this is the last place that this kind of thing might happen. But people were seeing my interaction with books and imagine that it signifies some success I would have in the future.
And, so, they saw it also as it looked like a distinguishing kind of quality.
So, I will say: It's not that I wasn't encouraged as a child, but I will say that men in prison encouraged me more, just sort of a subset that I remember, right? I mean, I got the same kind of bias that everybody else has. But I have a stronger sense of people in prison encouraging what I might be because of a book, than I got when I was in middle school and high school.
Russ Roberts: And, the books you chose to read often weren't your choice. It's whatever you could get your hands on. But you did have some opportunity to curate your own selection. And, I'm curious how that worked for you and how you decided what to read when you could have some say in it?
Dwayne Betts: Yeah. I mean, it was still sort of hodgepodge because it was Ralph Ellison would mentioned Albert Murray essay, so now I'm picking up Albert Murray's Train Whistle Guitar. It was like, okay, I'm reading John Edgar Wideman, so I'm going to read all of John Edgar Wideman. It was like, I know Toni Morrison. I was like, 'Oh, I heard it as, um--who am I thinking about? It would be like, it would just be the sense of--I can't believe I can't--I want to say Raisin in the Sun, but I'm not even thinking about A Raisin in the Sun. I'm thinking about Alice Walker's book.
Russ Roberts: It was The Color Purple.
Dwayne Betts: The Color Purple. I can't believe I couldn't think of The Color Purple. But, like, so I didn't even read the book until I came home; I read the screenplay, and it was some real changes in the screenplay from the book, actually. And, I was like, 'Wow, I didn't know that Spielberg had did a few things differently.' And it kind of subverted some sense of what I thought she was doing in the book. But, then I read her book on Genital Mutilation, and it wasn't that I was interested necessarily in reading a book about genital mutilation, because I didn't know what it was. But I knew who Alice Walker was. And, that was the book of hers that they had in the library. So, that's the one I read, it.
And, it was really like that.
When I started purchasing books--it's wild. I read this book, Willie Bosket, All God's Children. And, I got the book from the library and I only got it because of the name. I was thinking who are God's children? And, because when you--some of the prisons I was at, it took about six years into my sentence before I was able to go to a physical library. So, all of the other prisons I was at before then that actually had no[?] libraries, they would just have like 10 pages with books listed. And, so, I would pick books based on the name or the author. And, I ended up getting All God's Children simply based on the name.
And, I got that and it was about Willie Bosket. And it was about, he murdered two people when he was 15 on a subway in New York. And, at the time, the age of majority in New York was 16. So, if you were 16, you went to Rikers and then you went to prison. But, if you were under 16, there was no mechanism that existed for them to try you as an adult.
So, this is in the 1970s: So you got to imagine me reading this book, having got tried as an adult at 16, and I'm reading, and I'm discovering the pattern, in a sense, of how this came about. And, so I imagined--and after the Bosket case, states all across the country started to try juveniles as adults.
But, think about this discovery, just based on a name of a book. If it was named something else, I might not have read it. Worse Than Slavery, I read that. And, the interesting thing about that is I was just like, 'What's worse than slavery?' And, then the book was about prison. And, I was like, 'Oh, I don't know.' I mean, it's bad, but I don't know if it's worse than slavery.
And, what's interesting, though, is I read that book when I found out about convict leasing, and also that they had juveniles locked up in prison in, like, in Parchman, in the early 1900s. And, so, these books became a kind of education, a real education for me; but really like a hodgepodge, because one book would just lead me to the next. And, sometimes the only thing that would lead me to a book would be the title of the book. And, you just--I've read it for different reasons, but yeah, I read a lot actually.
Russ Roberts: Now, you write in your memoir that you took notes: you kept journals, and you kept notes on the books that you read. Why did you think to do that? And, how did that experience--I regret that I didn't take notes on the books I read when I was younger. Didn't keep track of--I just wish I had a list of all the books I've ever read. And, I'm curious what motivated you to do that and how extensively? Did you have a strategy or a style that you can share?
Dwayne Betts: So, I was motivated to do it first because I kept--not forgetting what I read--but some books are garbage. I was reading, like, Reader's Digest four books in one. And there was no way that I would remember what I read.
But then also I think it happened the first time I got a book of poems that I really dug, and I knew I had to return it. And, so, I wrote the poems down by hand. And I still have that somewhere. And, you know, I would write on the back of request forms. I would write--because the thing is paper was not expensive, but it's expensive when you make 23 cent an hour. And, so, you could ask for request forms, and the request form always came in duplicate or triplicate. And, so, you could write on the back of the white page, or you could write on the back of the yellow page.
And, so, I did that; and I used those requests forms because there was no way for me to track what mattered in a book, if I returned the book. And, sometimes what mattered would just be a line. And sometimes what mattered would be a paragraph, or sometimes what mattered would just be to know what it was that I read.
And, I did it for a while pretty religiously, but I found--and maybe this was freeing, really--I found that in life it's not always what you see through, but what you find value in beginning. And, so, I had a lot of beginnings. I would say, 'All right, I'm going to do it this way, this time.' And, I would do it for a couple of months, and then I would not do it for a while, and then I would pick it up and do it again.
And, so, it wasn't really as systematic as I would have liked. And, it's unfortunate in some sense, because I ended up sending a bunch of stuff home, books and these notebooks, and they just got lost. I don't know where it went. I mean, UPS [U.S. Postal Service], maybe it got thrown in the trash, never got mailed. And, it's kind of messed up though, because--I don't know, man. I mean, it's a huge--two, three boxes just worth of stuff that I had accumulated. And, the only thing you could really accumulate in prison without drawing attention to yourself is books and paper. And, you could have 12 books at a time, and then you could have really as much paper as you want, as long as it can fit in your locker, but you had two lockers, and so you could fit a fair amount of paper in two nice size footlockers.
And, then you go send that stuff home, though--I don't know, understaffed, under-resourced, who cares about the papers of a prisoner? So, a lot of that stuff got lost.
But the value that I got out of it really was--I think it gave me a sense of some books that really mattered, but also it just helped me believe that the books mattered. So, just the act of writing these big things down, notating them.
I mean, the first essay I wrote was because I hated All God's Children. I mean, I really--he was making this argument that violence was somehow genetic and he was talking about Bosket, his father, who had also went to prison and he was in a, I think it was--he was a Kappa. He was one one of those honor societies that you just get based on grades. His dad was supposed to have been brilliant; and he got that, and he got a college degree before they ended Pell Grants. Then the notion was that even though he was fathered and raised--Willy--that the violence of his father got transmuted to the son. And then he made this bigger argument to say all of it came from the violence of South Carolina. And the book starts with early South Carolinian legislators and the brutality and violence in a state legislator. He's sort of making this argument that all of it was in the blood or the water. And it was, like, ridiculous. And it was, like, dangerous, to me too. I spent hours, man, writing this essay, just trying to break down all the reasons why, even in his own book, he was pointing to things that led to Bosket's violence, that he wasn't acknowledging. It read like it was the suggestion the Bosket had got sexually assaulted as a juvenile in a detention center. It was clear that he didn't have a lot of family support. He had some mental illness, mental health issues that weren't treated.
Anyway, my point is that me writing that essay was sort of born out of keeping a list. It was saying that the book mattered enough for me to remember, and sometimes the way the book mattered meant that I had to engage with it and argue with it.
And that essay, that's kind of mad, that essay is one of the things that got lost. I would love to know, I mean, I know what I wrote because I still feel so angry about the book.
Russ Roberts: I think we just heard an excerpt from it.
Russ Roberts: Do you write in a journal now, when you read? Do you write in the books? Those books you had in prison were borrowed, typically, so you'd have to return them, there would be no point in writing. Although occasionally I suspect you'd want to write something in them as a message to other people. But, do you write in your books now? Do you take notes?
Dwayne Betts: I should say, I wish I did write in books then, but I did not. I thought it was just like a religious experience and I'm not even a religious person; but I did feel like reading was the closest thing to a religious experience I really understood. People say things like my body is my temple, and so they have all of these rules about what they will and won't do. Well, I really did think about a book as a temple, and so I wouldn't lay the book flat on its spine. I would read, like I got this book here and it's a pretty big paperback book. I got this book, but if I was reading it in prison, I would read it like this. I wouldn't open it all the way--
Russ Roberts: Wouldn't open it all the way, sure.
Dwayne Betts: Because I wouldn't want to crack the spine. And, especially, oh, you would dig this, right? Especially if I had something like this--
Russ Roberts: What's that? For people who are not watching this on YouTube. Go ahead.
Dwayne Betts: The Brothers Karamazov.
Russ Roberts: Oh yeah.
Dwayne Betts: Yeah. And so I would never open this all the way because it's just the spine--I would be offending the book.
So, in prison I would never write in a book. Part of that was I developed my own relationship with books based on how I thought dignity and respect worked. Like, in prison: If you don't touch somebody without consent and their permission, then you are affording them a measure of dignity and respect that is critical to surviving in a world like this. And so, I was treating books the same way.
It wasn't until I got in college, really, when I came home and I started going to college, that I actually gave myself permission to write in a book. And I gave myself permission to dog-ear pages. And so now, I write in books all the time, and it's just a part of my habit and practice of reading. And if there's a particular line or something that I really want to hold on to, then I'll write it somewhere outside of the book. Particularly if I'm thinking that it's meaningful in a way that I would want to include it in something that I'm writing, then I'll definitely pull it out and write it somewhere else.
And, part of that just came from--in prison I actually didn't even know--it's so funny--I thought people wrote everything out of their own head. I didn't understand the way in which books beget other books. I thought it was all a matter of literary genius. And it's only been since I came home that I begun to see how--and this is actually what I regret most about those nine years. I mean, nobody wants to go to prison, but man, I could have used that time in a different way. And I don't want it back at all. But, if I had some kind of blueprint before--and maybe that's really what the Freedom Libraries and the Million Book Project is about--is to say that sometimes all you have is that time and it would be a wonderful thing to just have a real sense of how you might organize that time around books and literature to build a life that you feel is meaningful.
Russ Roberts: You say you don't want it back. Why not? The nine years, eight-and-a-half years?
Dwayne Betts: I guess I mean two things. One, I mean, I don't want to do the time over again. It's like, I just don't.
And then the other thing is that I actually don't think I would've got--so I'm complaining about not having the kind of relationship with books and literature that I have now, and not having an understanding around books and literature that I have now. But, what I know is that if it wasn't for prison, I wouldn't have the one that I have right now. You know, if I was replacing that nine years with something else, I just don't think it would have been with--I mean, somebody introduced me to Frantz Fanon as a 16-year old in prison. I mean, I was 16, in prison, and got introduced to Frantz Fanon by this young black gay dude. It's like: this doesn't happen. You know? This is like, this is not how you get introduced to one of the brilliant thinkers of 20th century or whatever. Right? And I couldn't understand a word of what I was reading. Black Skin, White Mask? I'm not going to understand this. You know? Wretched of the Earth?
The only thing I understood was some of the stories, and I remembered them, and I carried them with me. And there was one story in Wretched of the Earth about these Algerian kids that killed their French friend. And so, Fanon was treating him, and he was like, 'Why did you do this thing?' And, he said, 'Have you ever heard of a French man going to jail for killing an Algerian?'
And that story always stuck with me because that is just such an inadequate explanation for taking somebody's life. What it made me realize, at least the story for me, was like my own crime and my own violence. It's how we all tell ourselves stories about why we do things--and I still can't remember what Fanon said after that, but I remember that childlike thinking, and what I do remember about the childlike thinking was that I was rationalizing the things that I was doing in the same way these Algerian kids were rationalizing what they had done.
So, it's strange, though, because you read a book and in some ways a really selfish act--and in a world where you can't be selfish, in a world of prison where you can't be selfish really without somehow imposing upon the dignity and safety of others--the book was a way to be like, 'I'm going to take this time for myself,' and 'what I get from this book only has to matter to me.' Then when you got a little bit more sophisticated, you'd be like, 'You know what? I want to make sure you know why this matters and prove I'm right about what matters about it.' But, at first it was just, I could try to know myself a bit better by reading this work, even if all I'm knowing is how much I still don't know. That's kind of cool, too.
Russ Roberts: You have a line in your book which is precious to me. You say, "There's something about waking up every morning to your life in a box that makes you want to learn to be more than you were when you went to sleep the night before." And that's--that should be all of our missions in life--I think--to some extent; otherwise we're just no different from a horse dragging a cart around all day. If we want to express what's human in ourselves, we want to be more the next day than we were the night before when we lay down.
It's hard to do. Books, obviously--a recent EconTalk episode you haven't heard yet, Dwayne, because it hasn't aired yet, but with Zena Hitz on her book, Lost in Thought--her book is a defense, really, of--that there's something essentially human about communing with authors, dead and alive, especially dead ones, though, because you can't talk to them otherwise. And you can have that conversation that a horse can't have. So, there's something deeply transformative about it, if you let it do its work.
Dwayne Betts: I think one of the things that I've admired about EconTalk--and I can't even really remember how I started listening to it--but one of the things I really admire about it is, like, you engage with books, and you engage with all this about their books, but frequently the authors, the best of them, talk about the books that they've read and the books that fuel their work.
Because, I do think what prison taught me, maybe, that I really didn't know before, is that it's almost like a lineage from one book to the next, but then it's a shadow lineage, too. And so, it will always be interesting. Somebody would be, like, 'Are you reading Harry Potter?' And, I'd be, like, 'Nah, I read Tolkien, I'm good. I'm not going to read that.' And it will be wild, though: the way that I will get introduced to books by people who I wouldn't expect to be reading certain things. And then those introductions became, also, a part of the shadow lineage.
And so I know the dude that introduced me to Tolkien, and he was just like a young dude, locked up for shooting somebody. I think he was smart, but he wasn't like, 'I'm going to college.' He just liked books, he liked to talk about books. And the wild thing is we were talking about the White Ninja. I'm in the hole, and I'm talking about the White Ninja, I can't remember the guy who wrote it, but it was in a vein of books that's like Shibumi by this cat, Trevanian. And they're kind of like thrillers, right? Someone's book called the White Ninja, which--one of the things that pulled me to these books was it really ended up being about what it meant to be moral. Like, at the end of the day, that's just what the book is, and it's wild that you got all of these cats in prison that's really reading books, making arguments about what it is to be moral, and what it is to sacrifice something on principle.
So, I'm yelling back and forth arguing about this book, and the guy in his cell next to me, he was like, 'You know, I think you would like Tolkien.' And I was like, 'What?' This is like 17 different continents away; and I read Tolkien and I'm fascinated by it. And then me and this guy ended up being in a cell together, and he just wouldn't be the person that I would have type-cast to recommend Tolkien to me.
And so, what I learned is that these books have a lineage based on the authors that the books are communicating with, and the books that shaped the authors of the books. Right?
But, it's also the shadow lineage where it's like: Who introduced you to what? And when you begin to realize that--I don't know, man, it's like democratic; it's like reading is probably one of the more democratic things that we could do. And that's why I think literacy is so important, because you really can't--I mean, we can meet, intellectually, over a book, oftentimes in a way that we can't over our lives. Because it's really hard not to admit some of the biases that we have when we examine in the lives[?] in books. It's just too rich. So, I've been fortunate.
Russ Roberts: You make an interesting point, which also came up in the Zena Hitz interview, which is: How do we talk to people from a different social class than we are? That can be challenging.
Books are obviously one way we do that. We can talk to someone who's radically different, whose daily life is radically different from ours. So, the life of the mind, which has a pretentious un-realism about it, is really not the right way to think about it. That phrase doesn't capture what I'm talking about. It's really more that everyone's inner life can be touched by something they've read, and can share that and create that web, that network of conversation with living people recommending and liking and discussing the ideas in books, plus the dead folks who wrote them, sometimes, and who were influenced by their predecessors, none of which are alive.
As I said, I think it's a quintessentially human experience when approached the way that you're talking about. Not for leisure.
Leisure is okay. There was a period of my life where I read, I don't know--I read two or three mysteries a week, just for fun. They're in a box in the basement; they're probably water-damaged. They used to be precious to me because they were my journal, those mysteries. And I tried to read "good mysteries." There's a lot of really fine British mystery writers who I came to love. But that's not the same as grappling with something a little harder, but they're all good.
Dwayne Betts: It's interesting, though, because there's like these two points, I think. First, for me, the mystery sometimes what I realize, is when I would try to go back to some of the stuff that I really, really enjoyed when I was younger, or I wish I had to read, like, a new mystery writer, I'd be like, 'Yeah. Nah. This just took me two hours to read.' And I'm, like, predicting what's going to happen next, and I can't really ask myself who this person is because it's just shorthand in so much of the details. And I was like, 'Man, was [?] as good as I thought he was?' And it is hard to know.
But then the other thing, because you did a couple of shows on this, right? One was Epstein, talking to Epstein, on his book--
Russ Roberts: David Epstein, Range.
Dwayne Betts: And, like, Range is sort of like--chess is not that interesting. I like tennis, but it's not really--tennis, like, Tiger Woods, these aren't really the substance of deep conversations, right? But that book really is about how you can have a really deep and sophisticated discussion about the effort that goes into producing--
Russ Roberts: greatness.
Dwayne Betts: Right. And in a recent book, 'The Hot Streak,' and I read that, and it's interesting too because I read Range and 'The Hot Streak,' but you take the 'Hot Streak,' and it was sort of like, that was funny too--
Russ Roberts: The Hot Hand, by Ben Cohen. Yeah, a recent guest.
Dwayne Betts: Yeah, by Ben Cohen. It was a recent--this is, wow, you won't even believe this--so, it was a Facebook ad, or a Twitter ad, that was just a clip at a Boston Celtics game. And, Smart [Marcus Smart] had hit, like, five 3-pointers in a row. And so they had the thing from the video game, 'He's on fire!' And they also had the basketball turning into a ball of flame.
And so it really made me think about The Hot Hand. But what's interesting is that those five shots he made in that basketball game just wasn't going to be the substance of really deep and provocative intellectual thought. But, then it becomes such when we argue about whether or not, like, did he actually have a hot hand? Or, if you look over a hundred shots, you'll find that he made the same 30, over that hundred, that he makes over every hundred in his career?
And you know, it's always--it's just interesting, and I think this is part of the joy, though: It's like books at their best could lift up the more mundane aspects of daily living to the point of being worthy of meaningful contemplation. And even at their worst, they're still as enjoyable as a basketball game. So, you can't really lose.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a good ad. That's a good ad, Dwayne.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the Project in a little more detail--the Million Book Project. How are you deciding what the 500 books are, that would be this curated library? And then, well, anything go along with it beside just the collection of 500 books. And, are all prisons that you've contacted, or have you yet to contact them, are they going to take them? Do they have room for them? I mean 500 books is a--I'm looking at my 500 books, that's a pretty big--it's not a small amount of shelf space.
Dwayne Betts: Yeah. So, one, let's just take the space issue. A typical prison unit--so, it's a challenge. You have dormitories or whatever. But a typical prison unit, there's nothing that decorates the walls. Period.
So, when you think about shelf space, the only thing on the wall would be some phones. And so you have to think about where could you put it. But, a lot of times there's a fair amount wall space that's free. So, you could just use the wall space. That's one reason why you want it in a unit. In the libraries, you might say that there's not enough shelf space; but you say: well, we don't want to have it in the library because the library has a limited number of people who could go there anyway. You kind of want it to be in somebody's living space in the same way that our books exist in our living spaces.
But, I have to be flexible, and that's the sort of R&D [Research and Development] part of this, is figuring out what is the best way to present it, because you do want to present it as a shelf of books, but maybe you don't present all 500. Maybe you create a kind of storage system that has a rotating collection of 50 that you see. And then you say, 'Well, okay, if there's a rotating collection of 50, well, what does that do for the sort of actual act and art of browsing a book collection?' I mean, that's a part of this.
And I say, 'Well, listen, I used to get these pamphlets with books in it, and all it had were[?] titles, and I found good books.' But, even I don't think that's enough.
So, what would I do to add another layer? And what other layers can we create? We are thinking about this all as a museum exhibit. And if you think about a museum, sometimes they can show all of the pieces in their collection, but sometimes the museum is bigger and they can't. But they still have to have a way to categorize and just know what's there.
So, we're going to create blurbs about the books in the collection, and some of the blurbs will verge on micro-essays. My idea is that most of them will be micro-essays; but some might be a bit longer than a micro-essay, but not that much longer. And the idea would be, you could go to this to get a sense of what it is that's in the book. That sense would both be--it'll be idiosyncratic, though. It won't be, 'This is the story of a man obsessed with a whale.' It'd be like, 'Honestly man, I read Moby Dick to my nine-year old son and we just got lost in it.' I mean, in this joint, you got chapters that's giving you a dissertation on the 17 types of whales. I don't think none of that stuff is true, by the way, but it was fascinating to read. Do you know how they split the shares on a whaling ship? And, what drives a man to, like, get on a ship and spend that much time in the water? You know, that kind of thing. If somebody reads that, I think that they read it and get a better sense of why they might want to pick up the book, and then they browse the book, and then they read the book.
So, part of it is creating that, and that's something that will accompany all of the Freedom Libraries.
Another thing I realized, talking to somebody--so, let me just talk about the curation process. There's three sort of steps. One, I'm taking founder's rates and I'm picking the first 250 myself, with Elizabeth Hinton. We're just picking the first 250. The second 250--and even in picking that 250, though, I'm being influenced by friends, I'm having conversations, it's not just--you know.
But, the second 250 is more cultivated, I think, and more curated, in the sense that we have three strategies. One is a survey, and a survey is, I think it's pretty fascinating, because it's asking, like, 'What book made you see the world differently? What book did you find so engaging that you read it and had to give it to somebody else? What book did you read that that was controversial that you thought you weren't supposed to read? Or that somebody told you, you couldn't read? Your high school didn't permit it or something. What was that book and what was your response to it? And so, yeah, these questions, the idea is that it will help create a list of titles.
And then we've been hosting these things called Book Circles, which have actually really been fascinating because what it is, is a Zoom call with three people, four people, five people, and they just discuss the books that they love. And that's been fascinating for a couple of reasons, right? Because the content we're creating is both generating titles, but generating the anecdotes about how and why books matter. Because I think the anecdotes in this sense are just as powerful as the titles, and we'll end up finding different ways to disseminate the anecdotes, both to people in public and people in the inside.
And then the last way is: Your life as a reader. Now, this is a series that I thought initially would be driven more to getting book titles, but it's actually been in some ways more complex than that. Because, what I do is I talk to somebody about their life as a reader. How do you change as a reader? How have I changed? I'm 40. How do my reading habits change now? What were they when I was 13, 14, 15, to college, and beyond? And actually in the early discussions, I found out a few things that's really fascinating. My son's experience with books is completely different because he picked up A Question of Freedom. He's 12, and I was like--
Russ Roberts: That's your memoir.
Dwayne Betts: That's my memoir. And, he's 12, and I'm asking myself, 'Do I let him read this book?' Well, I can't tell him not to read the book. It's like, that's a sin. You know, like, 'This book is not appropriate for you,' because it's like me saying my life is not appropriate for him. And, Pandora's Box has been open since he was five. So, 'Here, you can read it.'
So, anyway, what I learned, though, is, I was talking to somebody and I thought because--you have two ways of reading, and that's what I learned from this piece, is, I give--he picks up my book because it's on the floor. It's on the shelf. So, he's been exposed to all kinds of books because there's just a lot of books around. He reads multiple books at a time because he sees me and his mom reading a lot of books at a time. We talk about books with him.
But, I've realized that for a lot of folks, they don't begin to understand their capacity to read a lot, even for different folks in the same house. They might not get their capacity to read deeply and intensely across book and across genre, until they get to college, when all of a sudden somebody says, 'You only have four classes this semester.' And, you've been having eight classes your whole life, and you was like, 'This is easy, just four classes?' And then you get the syllabus, and each class has five books, and you got to read 20 books over the course of, like 14 weeks. And this is the first time that you read that deeply, that intensely, and that focused.
And so, I forgot that. Even though I've been a college student, even though I've experienced that, I just kind of forgot. Somebody told me that in one of these Your Life as a Reader conversations.
And so, the other thing we're producing is a syllabus, and the syllabus is not generated by books. Because, again, it'd be far less people who get access to these Freedom Libraries that are in prison. And that's just, it's just a fact of life, right? But, we're trying to produce this syllabus and work to have the materials and the syllabus included so that you have a piece of nonfiction, a piece of fiction, and a piece of poetry each week, and then a writing prompt. And, this pattern I have to imagine, and if you were, had a tutor, and what you had to do each week was read certain things and then write a letter to your tutor about what you read. Because some people who read aren't accustomed to talking about what they read, or don't have somebody to talk about what they read to.
And so, each week you're expected to write this letter about what you read. Each week I'm producing a sort of mini-lecture about metaphor, about simile, about [inaudible 49:04], about perspective, about voice. Just short mini-lessons that somehow get echoed in the readings. And then I produce a transcript for that if they don't have access to video within that particular prison. And then we'll send that around. And the idea is that this is essentially kind of like an anthology, but all of the works within it go back and echo what's in the Freedom Library. So, that becomes another resource, whether you had a Freedom Library or not, to give you a sense of how you might read some of these works together, and how you would engage with them.
And that's mainly what we're including: the syllabus, the catalog.
And then we're also including the author visits. And the author visits are sort of going to be available to everybody, in the sense that--well, not everybody--but in the sense that we have selected 52 Ambassadors to be a part of the project. And those Ambassadors would commit to say--and it'd be writers whose work is in it or who just want to be affiliated with the project and do this work. And then they would commit to going into a prison. And when they go into a prison, we would send either multiple copies of their book or multiple copies of a book that they want to discuss in a sort of way to seed a book club.
And then the last piece that we're doing is we're actually also doing a book club, and we seeding a book club. And the titles for the book club will be some of the titles from the Freedom Library. Then we'll be sending them in to some subset of prisons across the country, hopefully beginning November 1st. And then that's a way to engage right now; but it's also a way to build a relationship with different programs that exist around the country, in different states and different prisons, and also to encourage the reading in concert.
So, we get--it's this one big project, but the big project has a number of smaller projects all pushing towards making the book, making an argument for the book being a central aspect of a person's relationship with themselves through a period of incarceration.
Russ Roberts: When you think about your 250--or the whole list--I think there's a temptation we all have to say--well, so, for example, the way I've talked about this on the program, I think, but--my father was a huge influence on me as a reader. He expected me to read the books that he wanted, that he liked to read when he was my age, at different times. And, I expected to like those books. And that wasn't always true.
Russ Roberts: Same for my kids. I mean, Dickens is one of my favorite writers, and my favorite Dickens novel is Our Mutual Friend, an obscure one. My second choice would be Great Expectations probably. And none of my kids liked those books. It's hard for me, you know. But, that's okay. You come to learn that that's, for a whole bunch of reasons, they're not going to like everything you like. It's not just books. They have to find their own path.
When I think about curating what would be my list of 500 books for--I can't, I have nothing to say about what would be useful for prisoners--but what would be useful for a person who, say, wanted to be educated or wanted to think about morality or to think about human nature, my list would be very different from yours. And my natural impulse would be to choose the books that influenced me. Are you doing that? Are you trying to be--how are you dealing with that?
Dwayne Betts: First I should say that, like, Great Expectations, and one other interesting thing I'm trying to do, because a lot of the books that's in the public domain, is it's less expensive for me to print them myself than to pay for them. And so, Great Expectations would be there. The Count of Monte Cristo would be there. I never read Great Expectations, but I read David Copperfield. I read Oliver Twist. I read a bunch of Dickens, but just not Great Expectations. It's there because a friend just swears by it. And I actually bought it to read it. Because I feel like I should read at least 60% of the books that's in there.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's hard.
Dwayne Betts: And it's so funny. I read the first page to my son and he was like, 'You know, Dad, I'm good.' He's like, 'I don't want to read this.' And I was like, 'You sure? Because it gets better.' He was like, 'The mom is dead. The dad is dead. He's working in a workhouse. What's a workhouse?'
Russ Roberts: Spoiler alert.
Russ Roberts: Dwayne's already given away the key plot line of Great Expectations. It's about an orphan.
Dwayne Betts: That's not the first--so many of, I told my son, I was, like, 'Look, so many Dickens's books are about orphans. It's just, you got to deal with it.' He was like, 'No, I don't.' He was like, 'Let's read that book.' But so, I'm going to have the Great Expectations, but then I'm going to have somebody, I'm going to have this guy named Nicholas Davidoff[?] write the introduction.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I like him.
Dwayne Betts: Yeah. So, he's going to write a new introduction. But what's kind of fascinating is that, so some of these texts, you might not like them, but the question is why? Like, why? And that's one of the things that, like, I can't really tell my sons why I love some of the books I love. I mean, I can, but it's hard not to be real didactic about it. And it's hard. Maybe when they're grown, I think I might be able to have a different kind of conversation with them. Because I care about their response maybe more when they are grown.
So, like me and you, we might talk about a book that you love and I don't. We can have a real conversation about it from a sense of mutual respect. I don't know if I necessarily respect my eight-year old's opinion about Great Expectations. You know, I'm like, 'That's kind of shallow, kid.'
So, that's one way to deal with it, though, is to have some of these books that's in the public domain--to have people who love those books write the sort of new introduction for a short, a thousand pages--
Russ Roberts: Thousand words--
Dwayne Betts: I mean, a thousand words.
But they would never get asked, none of us is going to get asked to write the intro to Great Expectations, even if Penguin produces a new volume, because it's going to be the new annotated version introduced by esteemed English scholar. Then we're not going to want to read that.
And then don't read the introduction, just read the book. But hopefully this is a introduction that we think will matter. So, that's one way.
And then in terms of, and it's also a way to check my own biases, though. Because I listen to people when, I listen to the case they make for books, and I'm thinking about how--and listening to their case is really about how the book that they mentioned works in concert with Malcolm X, if we're talking about Great Expectations. How do you create a really interesting run of seven books that includes Great Expectations that will be really disarming for somebody who's both familiar with, like, Great Expectations and Malcolm X? That'd be kind of fascinating to me. Or, Great Expectations and The Count of Monte Cristo.
And, so I think that's some of the things that I'm thinking about.
And then, it is important to have a mix of what we might consider classics and then also what we might--because it's easy to get lost in, like, today, and I look at the books that won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in like 1960 and 1970. And, a lot of those books have been forgotten.
But there are books from the 1960s and 1970s and the 1980s that we still remember. And a lot of times those weren't the books that won big prizes. And sometimes you just need Wendell Berry to be a part of this.
And it's just like, you know, ethically or something. So, it's figuring out how to--and then also it's like these weird questions about region. You got to have, you got to touch on region. And you have to find a way, I have to find a way, to include books that, you know, crisscross the country and sort of crisscross the world.
And so, Faulkner is represented. But how is Faulkner represented? I'm reading Absalom, Absalom, now. It's like, this is a good book. I like this. I like where this is going. I love the writing in this. I love the riffs and the tangents. But maybe this isn't the Faulkner that should be here. And, how do I make that decision?
Or Crime and Punishment is the obvious choice for Dostoevsky, but I think it's going to be the Brothers Karamazov.
And so it's always a thousand competing interests. And maybe this is the more daunting aspect of the project, but it's also sort of the more fun aspect of the project. Because I could always say this is not the end. And it's like, anyway, nobody's going to be like, 'So, you've really decided.' Like, for instance, I can't, and the only thing I might include all of is August Wilson, his whole play cycle. And one of the reasons is, is his first, I actually don't even think it exists in paperback right now--and so it's going to have to be an argument with the publisher--not an argument, but I'm going--
Russ Roberts: a conversation--
Dwayne Betts: To have to convince the publisher, yeah, to produce it in paperback.
But also, it's interesting because I just think his work is completely missing from prison. Like, totally missing. Because I don't think the works are--I guess they probably are in paperback. It's just, I might just have the hardback. But people don't buy, the only plays you see in prison, that I've ever seen in prison, are, like, Shakespeare. I'm certain that there are people who teach theater in prison bring more plays in, but just, I only ever really saw Shakespeare.
So, but I don't know. That's an argument that I'm having with myself, too: what authors can you include more than one book? And then, what about the stuff that I didn't read? I didn't have a classic education. So, I read Plato, because I took a few philosophy classes, but I know Kant because a lot of my friends are philosophers. A couple of my good friends are philosophers. And so, I just kind of know Kant, but I've never read Kant.
And so, it has to be more than just about me. Partly it's about me-- well, the 250 is all about me. But it's not all about me in terms of what I'd love.
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Dwayne Betts: Sometimes it's aspirationally me. So, like Adam Smith, I didn't know Adam Smith could write. The thing is, like, most of my friends aren't economists, I guess, right? And so, nobody I know says Adam Smith, unless he plays quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals and I don't know it. But his writing is good, and it reminds me of writing of that era; but it's also trying to do something different, though. It's like reaching for meaning in a way that you just get in the richest books. And so, I don't know if I would have read his classic book, I don't even know the name of--
Russ Roberts: The Wealth of Nations.
Dwayne Betts: The Wealth of Nations. I don't know if I would've read that by the time we go to print. But I think it's important for that book to be in there. Because sometimes you set a path for who you become while you in prison, and then you get out and you're on that path, and because you've set that path, whatever it is, it begins to exclude certain things.
So, I'm 40 now and I'm returning to The Wealth of Nations, but it's mainly through my engagement with EconTalk and some of your guests.
And so, in my professional life, it would have actually been no reason for me to loop back around to Adam Smith. And so I want to make sure that there's work in the collection that allows people to have opportunity.
I mean, now I'm about to pronounce his name wrong, but Weber, you not read him when I was 16. And it was so daunting and so difficult and so challenging.
Russ Roberts: You're talking about Max. [Max Weber--Econlib Ed.]
Dwayne Betts: Max, yeah. Yeah. I was like, I read it and that was it. I didn't return to it.
And some things you have to return to it. Some things you have to have on the shelf, just because it's also an argument for the difficulty of the work.
And then the last thing I'll say, though, about what I'm including is I also talked to this reading expert and I've been thinking about this, too. A lot of people in prison read at a fourth or fifth grade level. And some of that is communicated not in, like, a really difficult book, an older book written, like Adam Smith is difficult. Even the excerpts you have in your book is difficult. Dostoevsky is difficult, but some of the difficulty is just in length. And then the kind of attention that the reading requires.
And so I've been playing around with how to create material that accompanies the book that gives others access into it. So, either that's having readers--and what I hope to produce to be part podcast, part television show--is they would read a story for 10 minutes and they will read their story. And that way you have an audio version of them reading it.
And I hope that it makes the work more familiar, because it's also this notion that you only read a book one time; and the stuff that we really know, I think it's as difficult to know music, good music, it's as difficult to really know it as it is to know a good book, but we take for granted the need to listen to a song multiple times. Coming up, I just didn't believe in reading books twice. I didn't really believe in reading passages twice.
So, it's like, how do you encourage that? I think the project is about finding ways to encourage all of these different ways of making meaning out of the material in the set and making arguments out of how people are situated towards that material.
Russ Roberts: So, your memoir--was all beautifully said. I just want to put it in a footnote. I wouldn't put Kant in the library, but just because he's--or Hegel--they're really--or Heidegger. There's a group of people that you can't read, but I would put some Homer, even though he's challenging, but--
Dwayne Betts: But, see, you've got to put Homer because you put The Iliad in there, but then you put Derek Walcott's book in there, that's basically a riff on the Iliad. And you have them together and it creates this conversation that you, like, 'Oh, this is what you mean by books echoing other books.'
Russ Roberts: I want you to get that two volume set of the Fagles translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey. And we'll count that as one. You can't leave off The Odyssey. And it--by the way, I tell this to, we talked about this a little bit off the air in another conversation, and Doug Lemov talks about this in my conversation with him about reading, which is: when you read to your kids, it's a good idea to read books that are too hard for them. That you have to stop and explain stuff and hear their reaction and see what they grasp and don't grasp. And I strongly recommend--you mentioned you have an eight-year old son, maybe the 12-year old--I strongly recommend reading at least excerpts of The Odyssey by Homer to your children, because it is cinematic. It's accessible. The language is so rich. And it's riveting. It's not like Great Expectations, at least it wasn't for my kids.
Dwayne Betts: I think I am going to do that for both, because my 12-year old, he reads all the Riordan. So, he knows all--
Russ Roberts: Reads what? Oh, Riordan, Rick Riordan.
Dwayne Betts: No, Rick Riordan. Yeah. So, he knows all of the Greek mythology, right? But then, we ended up getting him books of Greek mythology, like the classic stories; but he's never read Homer. He's read, he's heard excerpts and he's heard the stories. And so it would be really interesting reading it with him in the room because he knows the stories. So, it's kind of cool to--and also for him, it does the same thing. He's like, 'Oh, yeah, this is Percy Jackson. This is where that came from?'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's the shadow lineage. Yeah.
Dwayne Betts: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: That's cool. Or the lineage, and then your reaction is the shadow lineage, I guess.
Russ Roberts: Your book, your memoir, Question of Freedom, inevitably deals with racial issues. You're one of numerous black young men in that book who are incarcerated together, typically with--not always, not exclusively--but typically with many white guards and white judges and white administrators of the prison. I'm curious what your thoughts are in our current environment. I don't even know if I can handle this, Dwayne, maybe you can't either. But to segue from this conversation: Your book made me think about, obviously, the current environment and the tragedy of race in the United States.
And I'm curious if your thoughts have changed since you wrote that book about how the system works and how--I hate to use that word, the 'system,' because it's a shorthand for a million things, makes it sound like it's one--the social challenges of growing up black in America and how that might get better. Your project is one--I love your project because it's going to try to make a difference one book at a time, one reader at a time. And I think that's one way we change the world. But, of course, right now there's a lot of clamoring for more dramatic ways. I'm just curious what your thoughts are.
Dwayne Betts: You know, I will say one thing about books and reading I think that matters a lot, if you think about it, is: one way that it matters a lot is if you read prison memoirs over the stretch[?]. So, you go back to Manchild in the Promised Land, you read Racehoss, you read Makes Me Want to Holler by McCall. I mean, you just go back, right? You think about my book. You think about Malcolm X. What you find--you read Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, which was written in 1984--what you find is there has always been a really complicated relationship with black folks in the system; but you find that the way that that's been described has always changed and has always been conditioned on factors that are specific to those time periods.
Now, the challenge, now, is that we talk about so much of this stuff as if it was a plan that could be traced back to X point in the past. But, if you go to the literature, it's, like, well, nobody seems to talk about it in that way.
And, when I think about my own experience, what I remember is that my family was in court for me. And, I faced life for carjacking, and this was around the super-predator era, but it was nobody clamoring to say that this shouldn't be going on. A friend of mine got 63 years with no parole for attempted capital murder--the gun never went off, right? He tried to take the gun from the police. And he says he tried to shoot himself. The cop says he tried to shoot him. But the gun never went off. And he had also tried to commit suicide a little while before. So, there was evidence of suicide in his past, or attempted suicide. We wrote the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] to say, 'Listen, he has 63 years in a state that doesn't have parole for something that happened when he was 16. And it's a dispute about whether or not it is what they say it is.' And the ACLU sent us a form letter back: 'This is not what we deal with.'
And so, like, for me, the first step is to try really hard to disentangle the kind of ideological political argument about incarceration. Because, that argument frequently boxes out so many people I know, anyway. You got a homicide, you got a murder, you end up living, and to a large degree, outside the spectra[?] of advocacy. If you're a non-violent drug offender, if you got some kind of non-violent crime, then that's the central focus of the discussion of prison being wrong. But nobody is really saying, I think, how disastrous prison is, even in the context of violence that has been committed. Because we don't know how to grapple with that violence that has been committed.
And, you had mentioned something earlier, when it was, like, you mentioned my book, A Question of Freedom. A lot of it is grasping for, it's articulating this question. And maybe the point is to articulate the question.
I think, I mean, I think that that was just my default as a writer, because I don't have any answers. You know, I got a job at The Atlantic, right? And I was working and my son was born that November. And so I worked the summer before, and then I was going to University of Maryland, and my son was born in November. In January, or sometime, I got invited back by James Gibney, who was the Managing Editor at the time, and we were having lunch. And I got my kid there and I'm feeling like a dad--I'm a new dad--and I parked and I'm excited just because I negotiated the D.C. streets with this newborn, who is so small that he's still in a carry-on stroller, you know? I sit him down. One of the first times I ever asked for a highchair for the kid. Sit down to talk.
And he's like, you know, 'Somebody carjacked me in my driveway.'
And we did not have a conversation about the racial dynamics of incarceration in America. Because that's not the conversation you have when you harm somebody and somebody sees you and thinks about the way that they were harmed when they see you.
And I remember that he could have blocked me getting a job; and he didn't. And it was a really cool job for me to have. But we had a conversation, I have no idea of what we said. Right? And I'm meandering, but I think in my meandering what I'm trying to say that what I think about the current moment is that frequently the moment is invested in what it means to win.
And, everybody is invested in what it means to win. And I can make a case, I mean, you say that--in the book, I can make a case for anything. And I hired prosecutors, I've been a defense attorney. I've worked for judges, I've worked on cases with people's appeals--and I'm, like, I don't know if this person should not be in prison. He chopped somebody's head off. You know? And, like, the rhetoric doesn't allow you to have a real conversation about how do you respond to somebody who chopped somebody's head off.
And so, what I think is that we talk about difficult books, but we don't talk enough about difficult writing. And I think the writing, which is how I learned how to think --I think that writing about violence and incarceration and race is like the most complicated thing that's on America's radar.
And I don't know how we respond to it. And I think that we could always have all of the conversations about--like, some people just lie to themselves. It's true that, you know, I'm just not afraid for my son's life. He goes to a great school here in Connecticut. I have a great group of friends. I'm not concerned about him when he goes out in the street. I'm not concerned about him having an interaction with the police that ends in death. I get it. But I wrote a book [poem?--Econlib Ed.] called "When Thinking About Tamir Rice While Driving My Sons to School," because sometimes the symbolism of the moment has more power than whatever the statistical analysis would suggest.
But the real point is not to try to argue from either one of those modes, but to think through what it would mean to arrive at a different place.
You know, sometimes I feel like the best thing for me to do is find ways to opt out of the public conversation about some of these things, and opt into the rigorous thinking that's necessary for me to try to write my way into something more than articulating a problem. Right? Because I do think that's how a question of freedom--it's in the title. That's how it was cheap, but it was cheap in a sense that, like--I just cop to, I'm going to explore what it meant to be in prison. I'm not going to explore what it meant to be guilty. And what changed so much about how I think about this is when I came home and I found out, and I started thinking about all of the women that I know who have been raped and then have been in a courtroom working with the prosecutor. And they don't want restorative justice. They want the other kind of justice. They want culpability. They want whatever. They want accountability in one time.
Or, first year of law school, I'm driving home with my family because my best friend, nephew, gets murdered.
You know, like, there is no easy conversation around this that just says mass incarceration is the reason.
You know, I got four people out of prison this year. One guy had two homicides. Another guy had a robbery. Like, there's just actual violence. You know? And I go to the parole board and we're making cases for people who should be free despite what they did, because the case is built on mercy. The case isn't built on to the way in which racism is an integral part of so many decisions that happen in the justice system.
I don't know. I think it's just so interesting how the public conversation differs so dramatically from the conversation that you ever have to have with another human being about something that you did to them, about something that somebody you know did to them.
It's just like, it's frightening how different the public conversation is from what I have to say to a parole board, from what I had to say when I was a public defender to the family members of, like, somebody that my client might have robbed. I just couldn't imagine. A woman once said to me, said to our investigator, 'I get that they lock too many of our black brothers up. I get it. I get it. But this kid pulled a gun out on me and he should be in prison.' He was 15 years old, pulled a BB gun out on her. I was like, 'You know it was a BB gun.' She was like, 'He should be in prison.'
You know, and like, we're missing something. Whatever needs to be said to reach her, it's not there. Whatever needs to be said to reach me, when, like, my folks have been victimized is not there.
And I don't know. People say, 'Dwayne, how much time do you think you should have did?' I'm like, 'I guess five. I guess some review. I guess, like--I don't know.' I don't know.
Russ Roberts: Not an answerable question, really. Not the right question.
Russ Roberts: There's a tension between personal responsibility and social forces. And at the extreme, we all have perfect choice and free will to do whatever we want: We make our choices and live with the consequences. At the other extreme, we have no freedom because the way we were raised, where we grew up, the incentives around us, the education we didn't get.
And of course in reality, it's not one of those two extremes. It's both. And we don't like that.
And so the public conversation--what you were saying that resonates with me so deeply, and having just finished your book is that--because you have both in there. Your book is not self-justifying. It's an honest assessment of what you did, like you said just now. But it's pretty clear that there are some hard things going on there that are nobody's fault.
And so, for me, as listeners now everything's complicated. What I hear from you in that really eloquent summary is that it's complicated. And, our public conversation is simplistic to the point of dangerous--because it's either one or the other and you got to win. You got to win for your side. And that's not going to help people's lives I don't think. It scares me. Both sides scare me a lot.
Dwayne Betts: I agree. But again, I think--we talk about books. I think the beautiful part about it is--and this is what I try to land on, is this is that those extremes don't get remembered. And I just think that we live in a contemporary moment where you get far more airtime for living along the bandwidth of either extreme. And we've all forgotten that the extremes don't get remembered.
I mean, the truth is, in terms of literature, in terms of producing something like fine, most everything doesn't get remembered. But, like, a lot of folks used to pursue something beyond the extremes. You know, you can't read James Baldwin and think he was pursuing the extreme. I mean, he literally has a passage about throwing a coffee mug at a waitress's head. Like, that doesn't exist in a contemporary moment, where you write with that kind of self-reflection, where you own the way that whatever this disease is that we argue affects the country, like, infects us as speaker. You know. So.
Russ Roberts: Let's close and talk a little bit about poetry. Poetry, for most, or a lot of Americans I think, a lot of people generally is quote "hard." Their attitude I think--I think a lot of people may be listening to this, say, 'Well, I don't do poetry,' or 'I don't get poetry.' A little bit like--you could say it's a little bit like jazz. Jazz and poetry obviously have something in common. Now people say, 'I don't get jazz,' or 'I don't get classical music.' Most people don't say, 'I don't get heavy metal.' They might not like it, but they get it.
The whole idea of poetry, I think, is this paradoxical--as it is with jazz or great music generally--is by picking a style that is not straight-forward, you'd get somewhere you couldn't otherwise get. Which is hard to understand until you delved into it. Talk about the--you mentioned earlier the poetry anthology and your desire to be a poet. How did that spark work to make you want to write poetry as opposed to just read it?
Dwayne Betts: I think it was because--that's why I say after Etheridge Knight, too. Everybody else made me want to read poetry, but Knight maybe want to write poetry, because I've recognized him. He was trying to find meaning and understanding and what it meant to be incarcerated.
So, like, he'll have a poem where he's talking about the faces that he looks at on the wall of his family members. He's telling this story about how he was trying to overcome addiction and how he almost did it, but he didn't. He ended up breaking into somebody's crib and ended up in prison. And, you know, it was, like, real. And it was kind of--I don't know if the poem was about him, but the speaker in that poem, how he was telling that story was evidence of a kind of self-awareness of the conditions of confinement that I just hadn't seen anywhere.
It was the first time that I read something that, it wasn't an argument. It was something else. It was something that was crystalline, that you could get through those lines.
And so that's what made me want to be a poet. Because it made me feel like--and I got all of this in 30, 40 lines, though. It wasn't a dissertation. And then I read a poem, I actually called it "For Freckle Faced Gerald." And it was about a 16-year old kid that got raped in prison.
And, I was in prison, and I was a teenager. And I got in at 16. And Knight wrote this poem in the 1960s, early 1970s, which meant that--like, I thought I was the one. I thought that I was a part of the first cohort that had been treated this way by the country. Right?
And I read that poem. And I was, like, 'Wait, this has been happening?'
And, One, the poem made me be less--I was obsessed with my own suffering. Right? I was like, 'Damn man, it could be worse. I could be this kid.' And the kid said, 'For freckle face who couldn't win/the trust of fists other cats with his precise talk and innocent grin.' And I'm make jokes, I laugh, you know, I'm smart, but I came up where I came up. And I fully fit in everywhere I go. I don't even say that to brag. It's just you got qualities that you recognize about yourself. And I sort of recognize that that has always been a thing about me. But it wasn't for Gerald. You know?
And so, anyway, I read that and that's why I wanted to do it. Because he made me recognize that poetry could be history. It could be music, but it could be a real exploration of what it means to be alive at a particular moment. And it could be all of those things in a span of 10, 15, 20 well-written lines. You know, in terms of the way that a novel would intimidate a person, me specifically, the poem didn't do it. The poem felt like I could do this thing. That's why I started writing. And from that moment, I read that book and I said, 'I am going to be a poet.'
And so I had did this two years already where I was just like, 'I'm going to be a writer.' I had just said it and started doing these things and writing the essays, but I wasn't really like, 'I'm going to be a novelist,' or anything like that. It was just a general aspiration that was floating in the ether, right? That was defining my relationship to books, but not really my relationship to output.
Russ Roberts: To work.
Dwayne Betts: Right.
Then I said, 'I'm going to be a poet.' I mean, now I'm stapling pages together. I'm like, 'Yo, you want to hear this poem I wrote?' And I'm reading poems to the people that's in the cells beside me. And I'm taking models now, you know. Now I'm reading as a writer. I'm like, 'Oh, I like that. Let me try to write a poem that's in the vein of this thing that Sonia Sanchez did.' It was freeing though actually. And I still think that's the case.
Although, I feel like the challenge with poetry is like if you say, 'Let me hear something,' so many poets got to go to that book. And so now my challenge as a poet is, like, not. If you ask me for something, it needs to be in my head.
So, what does it mean to begin to learn my work by heart and carry it around with me? I think that most contemporary poets--it's just not--I got an MFA [Master of Fine Arts]. It wasn't a part of the practice. There was never a time during my MFA where somebody said, 'Yes; and Dwayne, as a poet, you need to carry 10 poems around in your head by yourself and at least three by others. This is, like, your duty.' It's almost like, imagine somebody was a preacher. And they was like, 'I want to talk about the Bible with you, Pastor. I've been'--'Hold up, hold up, let me go get my Bible because I know there's something in John that'll be important for this conversation.'
That's not--that's not what you think a pastor should do.
And so I think I imagine the training of a poet should be more akin to that. It should be like, you need to know your work, but you need to know to work of others because when it's time to minister--talking about it in religious terms, extending the metaphor to the point of absurdity--but it's true. When you want to expose or introduce somebody to your work, you can't have to go to the book. At least that's how I'm feeling about it now. And so I'm working really hard to know things.
Russ Roberts: That's very Homeric, I think. I think Homer was just--I don't think he did a lot of readings from the parchment. I don't know; maybe not; they're pretty long.
That's intense, that whole idea. You write in your book, in A Question of Freedom, you write about submitting poem, after poem, after poem. As a prisoner. I've submitted a few poems for publication in my life, but most of them have been rejected. Maybe all of them. I have to think about whether it's literally every single one. But, you got rejection after rejection. Which is common for a beginner, and even sometimes an experienced poet.
And then you get a poem accepted. You're a prisoner. And, you talk about the elation that you felt. And, I found that part so poignant, because you want to share it; and the people around you maybe don't fully share your enthusiasm for the enterprise, or for yourself. So, talk about what that was like.
Dwayne Betts: It's probably because--I'm telling you, it's probably, because I didn't know the stuff by heart.
People rapped and shared raps all the time. They knew them by heart. People freestyled all the time. Oh, and they shared--in my excitement because I was running around the block, like, 'I got this straight published.' They're just like, 'You got a book published?' 'Nah.'
Russ Roberts: Not quite.
Dwayne Betts: Like, 'What is it? Did you get paid?' 'Nah. I didn't get paid.'
But, it's wild, though, because that first poem, it was "A Different Route." And it was about a father who had two sons and he went back to his old neighborhood, and he's like searching for the thing in the eyes of the children there that my wife and my sons say have turned to stone in my own. And, you know, I wrote this as a 20-year-old. You know, no girlfriend, let alone a wife and two sons.
But I think your obsessions are your obsessions. And maybe one of mine is just understanding that prison could break you. And it could break you in ways that you think nobody else notices, but people see it in your eyes. And the poem was about regretting that. Even though the poem doesn't mention prison at all.
It's wild that I wrote that, really. Because--that's the thing. Was Knight writing about himself or was he writing about how he understood the world? And if you read that poem now, you might think that I wrote it this year. Because you think, Dwayne has two sons. I mean, it has to be about him.
But no, I mean, I wrote that decades ago.
And if I would've been able to say it to folks, though, the men around me who had children--if I would've been able to embody it in a way that I try to embody work publicly now--I can't help but to believe that they'd have been like, 'Write me one of those.' Like, 'Let me send it to my folks.' Because they did respond that way sometimes; but at the time I thought writing was a private occupation. I didn't understand this. Etheridge Knight would say that you publish a poem when you read it aloud. I didn't understand that then. So, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with one of your poems. It won't bother me if you read it out of the book. I have a copy of Felon right here.
Dwayne Betts: I feel like I set the bar up, so I'm going to try to--I'm going to read something from heart.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Okay. People who are listening at home through a podcast will not know whether you're reading it by heart or not, but certainly those on YouTube--or on YouTube, because you can be reading off the screen, Dwayne. But, give it a shot.
Dwayne Betts: I'm trying to be lovely, though.
Russ Roberts: You're sweet. So sweet. You're a good man. A little Adam Smith reference there for people. Go ahead.
The things that abandoned you get remembered different.
As precise as the English language can be, with words
like penultimate and perseverate, there is not an exact combination
of sounds that describe only that leaving. Once,
drinking and smoking with buddies, a friend asked if
I longed for a father. Had he said wanted, I would have
dismissed him in a way the younguns dismiss it all:
a shrug, sarcasm, a sharp jab to the stomach.
But he said longing and at a different place, I might
have wept. Said, once my father lived with us and then he
didn't and it fucked me up so bad that I didn't think about
until I held my first son in my arms and only
now speak on it. A man who drank whiskey and Wild
Average Rose like water once told me and some friends that there is no
word for father where he comes from, not like we know it.
There, the word father is the same as the word for listen.
The blunts we passed around let us abandon our tongues, not that much though. But, what if the old
head knew something? And if you have no father, you can't
hear straight. Years later, the same friend that asked me about longing wondered why
I didn't name my son after my own father, as if he ain't know. Some things
turn your life into a prayer the gods will certainly, certainly answer.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Dwayne Betts. Dwayne, thanks so much for being part of EconTalk.
Dwayne Betts: It was a pleasure, man. Thanks for having me.