Reading in Prison
February 27, 2010 5:52 PM   Subscribe

If you could come up with reading list for a young man doing a 16-year prison sentence, what would be on it?

One of my former students was recently sentenced to prison for multiple home invasions. Yes, what he did was wrong, and, yes, he'll be paying the price for the next decade and a half. But he'll be getting out eventually and I don't want his intellect to completely stultify in stir. In the past, I've sent copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Makes Me Wanna Holler, and Soul on Ice to some other incarcerated former students whose sentences weren't as long, but it looks like this guy will have a little more time to kill, so I need to expand my prison-lit repertoire. Any suggestions?
posted by John of Michigan to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The John Varley Mars series seemed to pass through the censors pretty well. Can you remind me of the guidelines besides no hardback - general censorship guidelines?
posted by tilde at 5:58 PM on February 27, 2010

Can you give us an idea of his reading tastes?
posted by impluvium at 6:01 PM on February 27, 2010

Playing the Enemy. It details how Mandela brought his country together after his 27-year sentence and might even be inspirational (yes, they based that movie on this book).
posted by misha at 6:07 PM on February 27, 2010

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
posted by milarepa at 6:10 PM on February 27, 2010

John McWhorter's Losing the Race and/or the follow-up, Winning the Race
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:24 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
Into the Wild and/or Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer
and maybe a nice big book of quotations--I particularly like The Yale Book of Quotations

Note: I have no experience working with prisoners and a lot of my suggestions are based on uninformed assumptions about what might help a young man keep his head on straight and above water in prison.
posted by sallybrown at 6:28 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists - Pick it up, and he'll have a good saying to help him get into whatever mindset he needs to be in.

David McCullough books, John Adams if you have to choose one.
posted by tenaciousd at 6:36 PM on February 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

We are all doing time: a guide to getting free by Bo Lozoff.

Bo runs what used to be called the Prison Ashram Project and is now called the Human Kindness organization.
posted by shothotbot at 6:38 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think some works of humor might not be a bad idea, but I can't think of any.
posted by jgirl at 6:40 PM on February 27, 2010

^A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
posted by torquemaniac at 6:56 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall may be outside the range of taste of most incarcerated youngsters, but it is very funny and does have a large prison subplot (including two successful escapes!). I would have thought it would also be sufficiently highbrow not to offend the censors, but I'm not very knowledgeable about that.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 6:59 PM on February 27, 2010

Dog Eat Dog or Education of a Felon by Edward Bunker (ex-con turned actor)

Samaritan or Lush Life by Richard Price
posted by mattbucher at 7:02 PM on February 27, 2010

This might seem out of place, but one of the big paperback Complete Hitchhiker's Guide collections. Lots to read, and helps to deal with the absurdity of life.
posted by pupdog at 7:02 PM on February 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Native Son" by Richard Wright.

"Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan.

Everyone loves "Calvin and Hobbes," and he might appreciate its light-heartedness. I second "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
posted by Lobster Garden at 7:08 PM on February 27, 2010

I've been reading Against the Day since I used a Christmas gift certificate to buy it. At over 1,000 pages of Pynchon, I figure it'll take about 16 years ...

and, in a very different direction, Tom Robbins's novel Still Life With Woodpecker is about an activist-bomber who goes to prison and spends his time meditating on objects - for example, he stares at a pack of Camel cigarettes long enough that he is able to enter the desert scene. (or something like that ... been awhile since I read it).

Best wishes for your student friend.
posted by mannequito at 7:08 PM on February 27, 2010

Poetry stays pretty fresh on multiple readings, and I memorizing a few poems so you can recite them in your head makes for good company when you're bored. Maybe a poetry anthology (several "Best American Poems" anthologies to choose from, f'ex) or maybe he'd like someone like Carl Sandberg or Walt Whitman or e.e. cummings.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 PM on February 27, 2010

Seconding jgirl: "Thought-provoking" is great, but there are days when what you really want & need is bubble-gum for the brain. Find out what he reads to escape & leaven that reading list with something that he can reach for on days when he just wants to crawl inside a book & forget the world around him. Even if it's comic books, there's value to be found in that kind of reading.
posted by Ys at 7:26 PM on February 27, 2010

I *FIND* memorizing a few poems ...
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 PM on February 27, 2010

I will think more about my own recommendations, but for right now I want to mention that a special friend of mine also served time (5 years total) for multiple burglaries and robberies, and after a few months of "attitude"when first incarcerated he began some soul-searching, and was immensely helped in this process by lots of reading. He mentioned that the book that most inspired him was Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." This was 45 years ago, maybe Dostoevsky would not appeal to a young person today, but you never know. My friend emerged from prison a changed man. Reading and thinking can definitely transform a person for the better.
posted by RRgal at 7:30 PM on February 27, 2010

Papillion by Henri Charriere immediately springs to mind. It's a classic -- it's about a Frenchman who is sent to prison in New Guinea and dares an escape. Claims to be a memoir but it's really a fantastic collection of tall tales and great storytelling. This is a great idea & I am glad you are doing this.
posted by mochapickle at 7:46 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not sure if you're already aware, but there's Prison Book Programmes that you could introduce your former student to as well.
posted by Abiezer at 7:49 PM on February 27, 2010

The Consolation of Philosophy.
posted by bricoleur at 8:02 PM on February 27, 2010

Do the books have to have a prison theme? I've noticed nearly all of the suggestions do--maybe because of the situation--but it seems that, if I were in prison, reading only books about being in prison might be, well, confining.

Book with prison theme: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Prison, yes, but a good rip-roaring action tale.
Book without prison theme: The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. A book about being content regardless of your situation and not taking any day for granted.

A big YES for the Evelyn Waugh suggestion. He is definitely on my prison list.

Very nice of you to think of this.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:28 PM on February 27, 2010

I would send Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyad series. At 20 books, you're looking at least a year's worth of reading wonderful prose and history, and the books can branch off into everything from biology to Napoleanic history, to the history of medicine, philosophy....
posted by KokuRyu at 8:43 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Bible.

Prisoners who "get right with Jesus" get better treatment from guards, chaplains, wardens, and governors.
posted by orthogonality at 9:26 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aren't all the prison-themed books gong to be confiscated?
posted by dfriedman at 9:44 PM on February 27, 2010

If I had some years to spend, I would want The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose, a 1000+ page walkthrough of modern math and physics from first principles.
posted by sninctown at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2010

Slaughterhouse-5, or Cat's Cradle / some other Vonnegut.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

If I were in prison I think I would appreciate humor and levity. Perhaps especially that of a humanist bent.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:11 PM on February 27, 2010

(also this is up for you to judge, but I think I would be put off if someone sent me a lot of "prison-themed" books. It would maybe seem like mockery. A few, like Malcolm X, might be great but I wouldn't make it a theme.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:12 PM on February 27, 2010

I'm with all the folks recommending not sending only prison themed books. Also, seconding Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.

Non prison-y but weighty books
Wally Lamb - I know this much is True and The Hour I First Believed
Caleb Carr - The Alienist
Clive Barker - Imajica

Put a smile on your face or make you laugh books
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
Craig Ferguson - American on Purpose
posted by kirstk at 10:45 PM on February 27, 2010

I volunteer with my local books to prisoners program.

Go to the thrift store and buy every fifty cent dictionary/thesaurus/translation book you can find. Especially if he's in a resource poor prison.

He can trade/lend them to others. They're in demand typically.

Books on how to write wouldn't be a bad idea either.
posted by beardlace at 11:09 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you plan on having an ongoing penpal correspondence? You may want to determine his interests in a letter and find fields that branch off from that. Anthologies are also good, anything long and varied.
posted by beardlace at 11:19 PM on February 27, 2010

I would want to have a copy of Les Misérables, which in addition to being a cracking good read, also addresses themes of justice and redemption in a most compelling manner.
posted by fairmettle at 4:02 AM on February 28, 2010

Blank books to write or draw in. Books on how to do things requiring little or no equipment, such as math and drawing, that also translate to life and job skills.
posted by eccnineten at 7:12 AM on February 28, 2010

I like mochapickle's suggestion of Papillion, because I tend to agree that if I were in your former student's situation, I might like to escape into a book where someone actually escapes. That said, I also agree with Solon and Thanks note that a focus on prison-themed books might be oppressive after a while.

Against this background, might Heller's Catch-22 be an inspired choice? It doesn't have the grimness of the prison, per se, but it does have the promise of escaping nevertheless...
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:39 AM on February 28, 2010

Seconding Catch-22. I think that would be a great choice about the absurdity of authority and how insane reality really is.
posted by elder18 at 11:31 AM on February 28, 2010

Touching Spirit Bear is about a young man working out his anger at the world. It's a young adult novel, not very long, and the plot is not intricate or complex.
posted by forforf at 12:04 PM on February 28, 2010

The Prison Librarian blog might be of help.
posted by bentley at 9:50 PM on February 28, 2010

When I worked at a library several years ago, one of my jobs was to check back in books that had been checked out by prisoners from the library's bookmobile. Most popular were escapist literature, religious literature, and books on arts and crafts and other hobbies. I think all three categories helped prisoners to meet some important needs, for distraction and adventure, for meaning and comfort, and for something to do and some way to be creative and to learn new skills and keep from stagnating. I know you're interested in your student's intellect, but you might want to consider those other needs as well and the ways in which books can serve them.
posted by bookish at 11:14 PM on March 1, 2010

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