In Yaroslavl prison near the start of her ten year sentence as a victim of Stalin’s purges Evgenia S. Ginzburg writes in Into The Whirlwind how vital books are to prisoners.
At home, I had always been regarded as a passionate and indefatigable bookworm. But it was only here, in my stone sepulchre, that I really learned to explore the inner meaning of what I read. I saw that always until then I had skimmed the surface, developing in breadth but not in depth. And when I came out of prison, I once again became incapable of reading as I had read in my cell in Yaroslav, where I rediscovered Dostoyevsky, Tyutchev, Pastenak and many others.
It was also there that, after ploughing through several books, I first learned the rudiments of the history of philosophy. Paradoxically, books which had long since been withdrawn fro the public libraries could be freely borrowed in prison.
Nothing is simpler than to explain the profound effect of books on a prisoner’s mind by the absence of outward stimulants. But this is not quite all there is to it. Isolation from everyday life and from its rat-race favours a kind of spiritual lucidity. Sitting in a cell, you don’t chase after the phantom of worldly success, you don’t play the diplomat or the hypocrite, you don’t compromise with your conscience. You can be wholly concerned with the highest problems of existence, and you approach them with a mind purified by suffering.
If even in labour camps, with their naked animal struggle for survival, thousands of our fellow-citizens were able to keep their integrity, how much more is this true of solitary confinement! Its ennobling influence is unquestionable – provided, of course, it does not go on so long as to undermine the foundations of personality.