Punishment, Poetry, and Percy Jackson
By Amy Willis
In this inspiring episode, author, poet, and lawyer Dwayne Betts describes the terrible choice he made at age 16 that left him in prison for almost a decade. Despite his tragic situation, the young Betts was determined to see his sentence more as an opportunity than a punishment.
EconTalk host Russ Roberts explores this experience with Betts, as well as the project born from his time in prison, the Million Books Project. The role of books in Betts’s life- it’s a line item in his personal budget!- is empowering and encouraging. If Betts can’t make you want to read great books, I’m not sure who can. We hope you’ll join us in continuing to reflect on this powerful episode. Use the prompts below and journal your thoughts. Or perhaps start a conversation at the dinner table. And by all means, grab some books. The shadow lineages are long… If we’re to get from Homer to Percy Jackson, it’s going to be a long night.
1- What does the process of reading look like for Betts, and how has his process changed over time? What does your process look like? Do you take notes, journal, dog-ear pages, or write in your books? How does Betts’s approach compare to Ryan Holiday’s? To what extent can Betts’s approach be seen as an “effort that goes into producing greatness? (This episode with David Epstein might also be helpful here.)
2- Why does Betts believe that reading is probably the most democratic thing we can do? How can we use reading to talk to people different from ourselves? (You might want to revisit this Extra, based on the recent episode with Zena Hitz.)
3- Pierre Goodrich, the founder of Liberty Fund, was purported to suggest never reading an introduction to a book. Why do you think that might be, and how does Betts’s plan for “new” introductions to the MBP books speak to Goodrich’s admonition?
4- What is the purpose of the Million Book Project, as Betts describes it? Why does he not want the books housed in a prison library, and why does he think about it more like a museum experience than a library experience? Which part of the program sounds most promising to you, and why?
5- How/when did you “find” your capacity to read multiple books deeply- college? Elsewhere? Consider Bette’s approach to his MBP “syllabi”- a selection each of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and a writing prompt. How well do you think this will work with prison populations? What other populations might benefit from such an approach?
6- The conversation concludes with Roberts asking Betts for his thoughts on the current environment with regard to race in America today. What most surprised you about Betts’s response?