The Books That Saved My Life

Chris Wilson was sentenced to life for murder, then he turned it all around. Here he shares the books that shaped his unusual path. 

Growing up in Washington, D.C in the 1980’s, I routinely risked my grandmother’s wrath when I crossed East Capital Street to get to the library. Humble beginnings limited my family’s resources and thus my access to the world, so reading books became my way of escaping reality. At the time, "escaping" essentially meant avoiding my daily troubles—like ducking stray bullets or being bullied by my older brother. Because I was able to immerse myself in the pages of the books I was reading, I could imagine myself floating next to Captain Ahab while understanding the brutality of his life. I could relate this to his pains and troubles. At an early age I began to accept that violence was a natural part of my environment.

When I was about 10, I began reading Aesop’s fables, Greek mythology and about leaders of the civil rights movement. For me, these stories had a few lasting lessons in common—lessons of morality and justice. I began to think critically about my decisions in life. Like a prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave who manages to escape and discover the real world outside it, I became motivated to leave my violent neighborhood and show others a way out of our figurative cave. When Martin Luther King wrote about his fear of dying unjustly, I wondered if life would ever improve for the folks living in my community.

But, despite reading as much as I could, it was not enough to rescue me from the violence. By the age of 13 I had lost several of my friends due to gun violence and I had witnessed my mother’s sexual assault by a police officer. I buried these memories deep inside and rarely discussed them. I tried to forget the memory of my mother's assault by reading more, but I could never escape the sound of her crying out for my help—her voice muffled as if she were put into shallow grave, still alive. I wanted to dig her out, but couldn't. I was completely helpless.

I became an angry kid and started to identify with some of the writings in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, especially when he wrote that “he had no mercy or compassion for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.” So my brothers and I began to carry guns for our protection. The battle field was on my block, it waged between building projects warring for turf and men fighting for power, their dignity or against poverty. One night men came after me and I ended up taking a person’s life. I was taken to jail, charged as an adult and sentenced to life in prison at 17 years old.

Being alone in prison only increased my hunger to read. Feeling ashamed for having committed a terrible crime, I sought answers from the pages of books and I truly believed that I was a good person.

As the prison I was housed in begin to overfill with gangs due to new tough on crime laws, I dove deeper into books that stimulated my mind. I formed a book club. The point was to share my discoveries with others as a way to curb prison violence. Reading books like Confession of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins and Freakonomics by Steve Levitt gave us practical insights into behavioral economics and what was actually considered rational behavior. I watched gang members transform from violent robbers into shrewd businessmen who profited off the law of scarcity (something they learned from economics) when running their illegal commissary stores in my housing unit. But the books brought us all peace and that was the important part. We would sip state-issued coffee and debate philosophies and theories by Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, all the way up to Stephen Hawking's Grand Design.

Over the years the book club became so popular in our prison, Amazon once donated over a thousand dollars’ worth of books to the club. Despite being in prison, my pursuit of education led me to receive my high school diploma. I learned to speak and write in several foreign languages and I earned a degree in sociology. By the grace of God, and a lot of hard work, I was granted a second chance by a sympathetic judge after serving over 16 years in prison.

"We would sip state-issued coffee and debate philosophies and theories by Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, all the way up to Stephen Hawking's Grand Design."

That was over twenty-five years ago. Today, many hundreds of books later, I still revel in the wisdom gained from reading. It is clear to me that books lifted my spirits in times of hardship. I remember when I first came home from prison I read A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He wrote about using adversity to discover our inner purpose and allowing traumatic moments to become our guiding light. Today, I call it the “positive delusion.” It’s when everyone else has conceded, yet you decide to never give up and further your life to achieving your goal. Trust me when I tell you that this book has helped me achieve the impossible. I went from being homeless and unemployed to founding several companies, receiving a full scholarship to a university and moving into a house in a nice neighborhood in less than three years!

At university, I found most of the academic books I had to read extremely boring. However, often those books led to other books that turned out to be amazing. While taking a course about the civil rights movement, my professor gave me the book Giant by John Stauffer. The book is essentially a juxtaposition of the lives of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln leading up to the emancipation era. Obliviously, these two figures had very noteworthy accomplishments, but two things I read in this book really touched my soul. The first was when Douglass discovered the true power of acquiring knowledge by learning how to read. He was transformed by something seemingly so simple that many take it for granted today. The second thing that inspired me and is rarely talked about, was the women behind the scenes who risked it all to help him become successful. Douglass often described himself as a ‘self-made man’ in his writings, but never mentioned the women who were instrumental in his success. Giant not only caused me to have deeper appreciation for the power of education, but also allowed me to notice women’s instrumental contributions in many of these so called self-made men in the world. Two years later, my two companies are funded by a single female investor. 

There is an old saying that goes “You won’t live long enough to make all of the mistakes in the world and recover from them.” The reality of life is that we’re all going to fail…a lot. So, nowadays, I like to read about failure and perseverance despite those setbacks. Recently, I read Napoleon by Phillip Dreyer. Napoleon was a famous French general, mostly known for being a warmonger, who rose to immense power in France and all of Europe during the early 1800’s. What was particularly fascinating about this book, in addition to Napoleon's level of ambition and insane work ethic, was his failures. Here was a person who wasn’t even French (he was actually Corsican), could barely conjugate French verbs, was short, very awkward around women, yet was able to rise to immense power. Napoleon not only lost it all, he got it all back, and then he lost it all again! One of the lessons I learned from reading this book is knowing when to stop in life. Whether it’s an unhealthy relationship or a bad business idea, we have to know when to stop and try something different.

Charles William Eliot once wrote that “books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.” As I type away to finish this essay, I can’t help but to peek at the books across the room on my book shelf. Books by authors James Baldwin, D. Watkins, Leil Lowndes, Taylor Branch, Ray Kurzweil and Michelle Alexander all continue to feed my hunger for knowledge and light my soul.

I have just finished writing my first book, a prescriptive memoir about my life experiences that’s projected to be released in 2018. I too hope to someday join the ranks of the great authors and inspire our current and future generations to maintain a thirst for knowledge and appreciation for powerful stories.