"I never left my cell, passing up that small dose of fake freedom for the real freedom Les Mis offered."While serving a six-year Federal sentence, former gang leader turned crime and business writer Louis Ferrante found an escape from the "hell of prison" in books, as well as envisioning a different way of living for himself. The last leg of his conversion experience was several months in an unsalubrious state prison. As soon as he received a permit, Ferrante made a beeline for the library, where he chanced upon an unabridged copy of Hugo's Les Misérables. I'll let him pick up the tale, as recounted in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book:
"I liked the cover art, and the spine was wide enough for a small sketch of a street urchin holding a broom. I signed the book out and rushed back to my cell.
When I first discovered books, I was a slow reader and had to keep a dictionary close at hand. By now, I was able to devour a three-hundred-page book in one day, seldom breaking to look up a word. Les Mis should’ve taken me about five days to finish. Once I started, though, I began to slow my pace. I read pages and paragraphs over, sometimes chapters; Hugo’s brilliance was something to be absorbed deliberately. I’d read plenty of histories about Napoleonic times, yet Hugo’s ability to place me on the battlefield of Waterloo surpassed every historian’s attempt to do the same. Hugo pointed out the many coincidences stacked up against Napoleon at Waterloo, and left the reader to contemplate the idea of natural justice, an idea I’d been toying with since discovering books and waking up to the many coincidences that led me to prison. I took note of how Hugo began and ended a chapter, how he created conflict, and how magnificently he resolved it. I’d flip back and forth, finding where a thought began, tracing its development, and studying its conclusion. While still in federal prison, I began teaching myself how to write, mostly by examining the styles of great authors who’ve stood the test of time. Les Mis placed Hugo at the top of that list. Everything he knew about writing was stuffed into its pages.
Everything he knew about life, too. Though two hundred years separated Victor Hugo from me, not much had changed with regard to human nature. His characters were remarkably real. I could relate to all of them, particularly, of course, protagonist Jean Valjean, the convict trying to make good on a lost life.
|Folio Society edition.|
I didn’t want the book to end. I stretched it out for as long as I could, about a month. Before placing it in the library’s return bin, I flipped through the pages once more, stopping here and there to read a line, which brought to mind a section of the book that stayed with me. I wished Hugo had written a sequel, but some things are so perfect, they’re better left alone.
About two years later, I was released from prison. I had served a total of eight and a half years. I had entered prison an aspiring gangster with ambition to rise in the Gambino Family. I returned home a book lover and writer.
Not long after my release, I was dating my future fiancée, a librarian and fellow bibliophile. We were browsing the shelves of a used book store, our favorite hobby, when I came across that familiar spine with the little street urchin. I grabbed the book, and hurried to the register. At home, I placed it on my shelf, like a trophy."
—Ferrante later penned a memoir titled 'Unlocked: a Journey From Prison to Proust.'
Many more great stories about key books in writers' lives can be found in Bound to Last, including David Hadju's life-changing encounter with Invisible Man.