New rules, implemented last November by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, mean that UK prisoners are banned from receiving books and other items in the post. The effect on the prisoners is inevitably demoralising and has led to much discussion (see today’s Bookseller) and public protest.
‘In prison you exist on dreams’ writes Erwin James of the Guardian and one-time life-sentence prisoner, showing how a book can befriend and help a mind to understand itself and gather strength. In the right conditions (I hesitate to use this phrase for prison), in trouble, in need, a silent book makes a paradoxically good questioner and listener. We asked the writers in issue 54 of The Reader what book they would send to a friend in jail.
I often send books into the people that I work with who are in prison. I have been told how important it is to have books in prison and that they are read over and over with different parts resonating in different readings. The books I send most frequently are The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee and The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama.
Many of the people that I have worked with have sold drugs; selling drugs is of course illegal in our society. I give them The Great Gatsby to show that engaging in a prohibited activity does not, necessarily, make you a bad person. Gatsby is set in Prohibition America, Gatsby got very wealthy from selling unlawful alcohol. The story is not that Gatsby is an evil guy – he’s breaking the law but he is not the dark element in the book. The amorality, or some might think immorality, comes from those who are considered law abiding. I think it’s a perfect analogy for our times, doing something unlawful may not be the most troubling thing, how you live your life is up to each individual and you can choose who you want to be irrespective of what you do.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favourite books and I often send it to the younger kids that I work with. There are so many great lessons in it primarily about the transition from childhood to adulthood, which is so difficult and confusing. Such as; learning that the world is not fair, having faith in human beings around you, people are not always who we believe them to be and being scared can stop us seeing clearly.
The Audacity of Hope: I really believe that Obama’s election as President can allow everyone to dream and aspire to leadership. Lots of our young people talk about lack of positive role models. It is relatively easy to aspire to be a hip hop star or rich but now it is within everyone’s reach, to be a leader of a country, to be involved in social engagement. Often having the confidence to believe that something is possible is enough to begin the process.
Chris Grayling’s decision to ban parcels, which includes books to prisoners, seems extremely short-sighted and does not help with rehabilitation or reintegration, which are two of the principles for children in the criminal justice system.
As for a book for prisoners, my choice is Endgame, by Samuel Beckett. When I first came to teach at Liverpool University in 1999, one of my tasks was to set-up the English part of the Arts faculty’s Go Higher programme, to help get people who (for whatever reason) hadn’t completed formal schooling prepared for undergraduate study. I put Endgame on the syllabus, because it was short and striking and, I guessed, likely to make them think things they had never thought before. Far from it. ‘I get it’, one of them said, a woman in perhaps her mid-50s – ‘it’s one moment, isn’t it – life is one moment’ – and a penny dropped for me. Another student, likewise a woman of middle-age, laughed at Nell and Nagg, living in bins, every day emerging and hoping to kiss, as though it was the simplest, most pared-down realism, an epitome of marriage, or of one life indentured to another. Her words were simpler and better: ‘That’s what life’s like, isn’t it, for a lotta people? It doesn’t mean you’ve stopped feeling or remembering.’ But I also like Beckett’s rare, gritty commitment to sentimentality, a shared emotional currency, so often disdained as false or cheap, but which he redeems as humanly true. Because for all that the play seems to get deep inside what it is like to live in an unfree body, condemned to daily recursion, and for all its knowledge of cruelty and guilt, it also shows the most beautiful commitment to endurance, even in, even as, desolation: “Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing”. We are together in our loneliness. “You…remain.” There is food here for many a dark moment.
What to send to a friend in prison? I’m not sure, because needs might be so different – Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison for one person, PG Wodehouse for another (or both for the same person at different times). One book I would recommend to anyone, in or out of prison, is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, a wonderful book whose title sometimes puts people off. The central character Kostoglotov is a political prisoner being treated for cancer, and the novel is a profound exploration of freedom, responsibility and corruption – but this is not a political book, finally, and certainly not just a ‘Cold War’ one, but rather a Tolstoyan celebration of life.
There’s a young lawyer in Anton Chekov’s short story ‘The Bet’, who stays in solitary confinement for fifteen years as part of a wager with an old banker. During the last two years of this self-imposed sentence he reads:
an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another.
I imagine that there would be a temptation within the singular time/space of prison life to clutch at reading in this way. My first thought was that I would try to re-connect, re-build something through my reading: work through, perhaps, my parents’ messy bookshelves one by one, and through them discover the thoughts which had (in)formed earlier years together, now held in books which to my eyes then seemed little more than slightly sad furniture. Could I re-trace life – theirs, mine – through such a reading history? But perhaps the friend to whom I am giving this advice would not have a reading history and shelves of books to draw on. Knowing what we do about the literacy levels of prisoners, this is likely to be the case. And so my recommendation would be to build up to tackle Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It’s a novel in two parts: in the first we see Jim, a young seaman on the Patna, abandon his sinking ship full of passengers, and publicly held to account; the second part is the story of his attempts to come to terms with this action, to re-build a life. He becomes ‘satisfied… nearly’, but ultimately his tragedy is that fails to get over his failure. Conrad writes that ‘there are as many shipwrecks as there are men’; in that prison cell, I feel there would be something especially important in the knowledge that failure in itself is not the biggest wrong.
As a big PG Wodehouse fan I would recommend a big omnibus of his work – Jeeves or Blandings or any other. Endless entertainment, lots of laughs and all set in a world that never existed so not really prompting thoughts of freedoms lost. And, of course, you are exposed to the work of one of the great masters of English prose. Reading and rereading the work you’ll painlessly become more familiar and comfortable with English usage and, effectively, acquire the kind of skill that will help keep you from re-offending once you’re out. Break the ban – everybody send parcels of Wodehouse to prisons!
Depends on what kind of pal, doesn’t it? But let’s assume it’s somebody prepared to ‘dig-in’ intellectually – I would send them Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities in the English translation that includes the final unfinished volume – it’s funny in places, it sees society as pretty mad (which it is), it’s not frightened to think seriously about one of its central characters who is in prison for murder, it’s erotic which usually helps, and there is real love in there too, both its problems and its immense joys. It is also very long which will help time pass, and there is something oddly comforting about the fact that it is unfinished, and looks unfinishable.
Regarding a good book to send to a ‘pal’ in jail, I felt it more realistic (knowing my pals) to choose for the type of male who has lost or neglected the reading habit of late. I would send him David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, partly because its various stories will transport him instantly to other worlds, but also because they will remind him of the inexhaustible possibilities of fiction. Since the nested doll structure of Mitchell’s book hints at our interconnectedness (however unique we think our own story), it might even help him avoid the sort of behaviour that got him in jail to begin with. Interestingly, I completed a spell of jury service last week, agreeing a unanimous verdict on a rather nasty crime that will almost certainly see its perpetrator sent to prison later this month. I suspect this young man is not an avid reader, but I would try to reel him in by sending him something fairly masculine, with the quality of fable, that got him to think a little more about common humanity. Two books that come to mind, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, ought to stocked be in every prison library.
The book I would choose for my imprisoned friend would be Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which imagines a world where books are not permitted and if discovered are destroyed. The rebels in this dystopian future are those who are interested in and captivated by books. It is a novel that is very prescient about developments in late twentieth century Western society including the advent of mass media and the dominance of television, and works as a warning about government censorship and the loss of literature. It would be a compelling read with themes relevant to what’s happening today that I hope my friend would want to discuss with others.
To Kill a Mockingbird Published by American author Harper Lee in 1960, a moving story about prejudice and loss of innocence, about the journey from childhood to becoming an adult. However, what is really striking about Harper’s prose, is the warmth that pervades even the most serious of subject matter.
Because people have such different tastes I’d be happier recommending a shelf of books for a prison rather than one title. For those who want to escape their surroundings (metaphorically) into a harmless, comic world there is P G Wodehouse. He wrote enough to keep you going for a hefty stretch but Summer Lightning is a good starting point. It is a story of love and pigs. George Eliot’s semi-autobiographical The Mill on the Floss is a great Victorian novel to immerse yourself in for hours. She writes about childhood and early friendships with an almost painful intensity. Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave was written during the Second World War and is a celebration of the pleasures of travel, great food and witty conversation. It also recommends the keeping of lemurs as pets. If I had to pick one book though it would be Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The broke narrator struggles to get by in the city, surviving from one meagre windfall to the next. Hamsun had spent ten years of poverty before writing Hunger but the prose is alive with the joy of someone creating the book they were born to write. Without ever being preachy, it is about starting over and about the excitement of finding the right words.
Dame Stephanie Shirley
Dear Jo [Dame Stephanie writes]: I hope you enjoy The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham as much as I did. This detective story memoir is a tragi-comedy of Victorian folly and influenced my whole view of the British Empire.
I’d like to nominate Simon Armitage’s Zoom – the first book of poetry that I fell in love with. It made me realise that poetry is not all fluff and ‘poetical’ language – or at least it doesn’t have to be. Zoom is what made Armitage’s name as a poet and it’s packed with moving, clever, and witty poems about everyday life. The language is slangy,everyday accessible but then twisted into forms that make you do the equivalent of a comedy double-take. This is the book I’d give to someone who told me they didn’t like poetry. Some are culled from his life as a probation officer in Manchester, others are about cricket, or football or just the life of a single ten-pence-piece. Or the book’s opener “Snow Joke”, about a man who dies when his car gets stuck in a blizzard. They’re all filled with northern dialect and amusing, surprising turns of phrase. There’s a touch of stand-up to them. They make you laugh, wince and think.
I would send Pilgrim’s Progress, to remind that great books can be written in the Slough of Despond, and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, because it is such an astonishingly rich, colourful, lively, witty and profound novel, full of hope and energy. I would also send Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, as it is inordinately long, and one would need a jail sentence to get through it. It is very good on prisons and criminology, as well as on many other stranger matters. I only finished it because I committed myself out of bravado to discussing it on Radio 3. It was challenging but very rewarding.
The Grass Arena, John Healy
‘My father didn’t look like he would harm anyone.’ The first sentence in John Healy’s autobiography The Grass Arena, which socks its own punch to me as reader ominously foreshadowing what is to come; the little boy brutalised by his own and, barely out of childhood, rapidly descending into alcoholism, homelessness, crime, violence and incarceration. This is no misery memoir it is a raw, visceral, unflinching often horrific account of the life of a ‘wino’ on the streets of London and it reads like poetry.
Why recommend such a book to someone in prison, likely to be struggling with confinement and with unpleasant amounts of time to think?
Because when I’m really struggling I need to be met in the place of struggle with the self same force, nothing less will do.
And because even though it’s hard to believe anyone could survive the life described here, they have and here is the evidence that it’s possible to come back from what might seem like certain annihilation.
And, finally, it’s really good to know and be reminded that it is possible.
What book would you send to a friend in prison, or what would you read yourself if a book seemed like your best and only resource?