What makes for good jail reading?
November 4, 2007 6:54 AM   Subscribe

What books should I buy for someone in jail?

My beloved motorcycle mechanic is in jail for a few weeks and I'd like to send him some books to help him pass the time. I can only order the books from Amazon and have them sent directly to him.

The last books he read were by Dostoyevsky and Flannery O'Connor. He says he'd like to use the time to read more classics and non-fiction books that address large philosophical issues. Or anything that explains internal combustion.

I was thinking about buying him three books - one big fiction classic (perhaps V or Gravity's Rainbow), one non-fiction book, and one "light" read.

Thank you!
posted by suki to Grab Bag (35 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values". Dying to know why someone embracing the classics and tackling meaty philosophical issues is cooling his heels in jail...
posted by 45moore45 at 7:00 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance might be ideal.

It addresses a very large philosophical issue, motorcycles, institutionalisation, and it's a great read.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 7:01 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Henry David Thoreau's Walden

Touches on solitude, self-reliance, civilisation and a person's place and role in society, the natural world and the passage of time.

It would be my first choice as prison reading. Well, that and a copy of Hustler.
posted by brautigan at 7:14 AM on November 4, 2007

Don Quichote de la Mancha by Miguel Cervantes: excellent read, guaranteed to keep him busy for months.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (it's more of a detective novel than a philosophical novel, but a good long read anyway).

Re the light reads: anything by P.G. Wodehouse should be light enough. 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' should qualify too.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:19 AM on November 4, 2007

I've never been in jail but the Bandini Quartet by John Fante strikes me as containing many of lifes simple pleasures, and plenty of reading in the one volume.
posted by fire&wings at 7:22 AM on November 4, 2007

For non-fiction: Empire by Hardt & Negri.
posted by mattbucher at 7:35 AM on November 4, 2007

I sent my father Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. I'd probably also send The Power of Now too. I think they deliver the right kind of messages in times of spiritual need, which was certainly the case with my father.

For lighter interesting reading, I'd maybe go for "A Brief History of Nearly Everything."

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is a always a good, light, long read.
posted by trinarian at 8:09 AM on November 4, 2007

I second Walden. Good read if you can get through his arrogance.
posted by uncballzer at 8:22 AM on November 4, 2007

"Rant" by Chuck Palaniuk was mind-blowing. He won't care he's in jail when he's reading such a page-turner.

Of course, I'm going to have to get the "'How to Break out of Jail' with a file in it" joke out of the way.
posted by tehloki at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2007

_The Count of Monte Cristo_ as a joke.

_Godel, Escher, Bach_, by Hofstadter

I don't have any advice about internal combustion. I'd like to point out that _Zen..._ above only tangentially touches on motorcycles.
posted by cmiller at 8:32 AM on November 4, 2007

Crime and Punishment hasn't been suggested yet?

How about James Joyce? That ought to keep him busy for quite awhile.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:47 AM on November 4, 2007

The Consolation of Philosophy (written in prison), A Confederacy of Dunces (great fun about a Boethius fanatic who is jailed along the way), and The Canterbury Tales.

Not Hidden Files: Law Enforcement's True Case Stories of the Unexplained and Paranormal.
posted by pracowity at 8:49 AM on November 4, 2007

"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn is a nice non-fiction book, it doesn't so much directly address philosophic issues as give a historic background necessary for understanding current US philosophic issues.

For a light read, I recommend anything by Terry Pratchett, he is, IMO, one of the finest modern authors.
posted by sotonohito at 8:50 AM on November 4, 2007

[Oops. I messed that up. Mixed two things. But never mind.]
posted by pracowity at 8:50 AM on November 4, 2007

Papillon. About escaping from prison, and about hope.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:55 AM on November 4, 2007

Cryptonomicon. A book that sucks you in and makes you forget where you are, plus has a decent bit toward the end where the protagonist is incarcerated in a Filipino jail. (just, please, not the abridged version.)

Also, Cormac McCarthy. Grand, epic prose, that also makes you forget where you are, and has enough violence on top of it that when he stops reading he'll probably be grateful he's in jail instead of the deserts of Blood Meridian.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 9:03 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

2nding Walden, also 2nding Bill Bryson's "A Brief History of Nearly Everything" for light reading.

Because many religious organizations spend a lot of time, money and effort on inmate outreach, I imagine he'll be supplied with more religious tracts than he would ever need or want. An anthropological study of religions, particularly religions in America, might be interesting to him on a philosophical level, especially because he'd be able to read the tracts in this context (I'm assuming the reading tracts wouldn't be very interesting otherwise).

Dying to know why someone embracing the classics and tackling meaty philosophical issues is cooling his heels in jail...
At first, I was curious too. Then I realized that one thing has little to do with the other. People are complex without one single, defining attribute. Intellectuals are as capable of making bad decisions and getting into trouble as non-intellectuals.
posted by necessitas at 9:06 AM on November 4, 2007

Rebuilding The Indian
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:26 AM on November 4, 2007

(Gödel, Escher, Bach, mentioned above, has the advantage of being very desert-island-y. It's full of connections you don't see at first, references to itself, puzzles to solve and paradoxes that deepen over time; you get more out of it each time you open it. Appropriate for jail, I think.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:40 AM on November 4, 2007

Autobiography of Malcolm X.
posted by milarepa at 9:07 AM on November 4, 2007

For a short read that draws you in to a world of incredible beauty, sadness, and a war against omniscient narration, I highly recommend The People of Paper (and go for the hardback, it's really nifty). It deals with themes of imprisonment, but not prison per se. Really, really, really good. And I mean really good. And it's a fast enough read. And it's amazing. Did I mention that it's really good?
posted by farishta at 9:25 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can also send them from Powells. You might also want to consider what book will say about him to his fellow inmates and pick the subject matter accordingly. If he needs to, or wants to, present an image due to his placement or his reason for being in prison, this could be an issue.

Don't stress too much about it, but be aware that being an "intellectual" in a high security prison may not be the best thing for him.
posted by pwb503 at 9:28 AM on November 4, 2007

Before you buy the books, look into the facility's policies on inmates having books.

The correctional facilities that I am familiar with require that the books be sent to inmates directly from the publisher. An individual cannot send a book to an inmate directly.

(However, it sounds like your friend is doing time in a county jail so maybe that facility doesn't have a policy prohibiting inmates from getting books from individuals.)
posted by jayder at 10:06 AM on November 4, 2007

Walden Two

Brave New World
posted by mysterious1der at 10:09 AM on November 4, 2007

I'll second Cryptonomicon for one of the fiction books. It's long enough and has an interesting-enough ending that you feel like you really accomplished something when you get there. That is, if you think he'll like the subject matter (WWII characters and people trying to lay cables to build the internet, and how these stories intersect).

posted by salvia at 10:43 AM on November 4, 2007

go for the hardback, it's really nifty

A word of caution: I once donated a box of books to a books-for-inmates program, and when they acknowledged the donation they added that they'd had to dispose of the hardbacks (possibly at a used book shop; I don't remember) because the prisons they worked with only allowed paperback books. I don't know how universal this rule is among correctional facilities.
posted by Orinda at 11:03 AM on November 4, 2007

Those interested in intellectuals spending time in jail should check out Jon's Jail Journal. I think he was released a few days ago, but while incarcerated he wrote letters which his parents transcribed and posted. Here's some info about why he was arrested.

And, here's his booklist and a post with a link to his amazon wishlist.
posted by lhall at 11:10 AM on November 4, 2007

I second BLOOD MERIDIAN as a great light read (in other words no major philosophical issues, but a very densly written work of art) and for non-fiction AN ISLAND TO ONESELF by Tom Neale (it is also a light read).

Another non-fiction candidate, EDUCATION OF A FELON by Edward Bunker.
posted by cinemafiend at 11:36 AM on November 4, 2007

No hardbacks is a pretty consistent rule among the correctional officials who buy books from our store regularly. They're seen as possible weapons, apparently. But definitely check with the facility first, as jayder says, so you don't waste your effort. I'm pretty sure most of the prisons we deal with only allow books shipped to the prisoner directly from the publisher, to avoid LSD being sprayed on the pages, or something.
posted by mediareport at 11:40 AM on November 4, 2007

I've been corresponding with an inmate for about 10 years, and have sent him books now and then (strangely, I was just thinking of posting a question along these lines to help me think of some new ideas!). One of the books that went over really well -- and that he wound up lending to some other guys in his block, who also apparently loved it -- was Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. It's (obviously) not a philosophical work, but as an adventure story, it raises some fascinating questions about ethics (under what circumstances do you help someone in peril, when it might bring peril to yourself?) and personal challenges.
posted by scody at 12:14 PM on November 4, 2007

It seems pretty likely to me that he's read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, being (apparently) a reader and a motorcycle mechanic and all.
Along the lines of V and Gravity's Rainbow, there's also The Recognitions or Tristram Shandy.
For midcentury postmodern American novels, I'm partial to early Barth, myself. There's a convenient edition of The End of the Road and The Floating Opera in one volume.
I'll second Hesse, though I'd probably recommend Narcissus & Goldmund, Peter Camenzind, and Demian before Siddhartha (which is not to say the latter isn't very, very good). Pictor's Metamorphoses is a very good collection of stories.
Faulkner will keep your head busy for ages if you've got the time and inclination. The Snopes trilogy is available in one volume, but I think it only comes in hardback. That's as good a place to start as any, though.
I read Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five one after the other, so they always sort of go together in my head. Good, funny, troubling WWII novels both.
Poetry might be worth a look, too. A color volume of Blake, say, or the collected works of Yeats, maybe.
Lucky Jim comes to mind as a light, super fun read.
As for nonfiction, Salt and Cod were both wildly popular at my library. I recommend them a lot when I get general requests for nonfiction with no further specification of interest. Also, someone mentioned Jon Krakauer upthread; Into the Wild is also a very good read.
posted by willpie at 1:29 PM on November 4, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you everyone - these are all excellent suggestions - not just for my friend, but for me as well. I doubt I'm going to be able to limit the purchase to three books. But there really is no such thing as too many books.

Coincidentally, when I went to visit him over the weekend, he mentioned that the only two books on the book cart that were not by V.C. Andrews or Danielle Steele were Blood Meridian and a Hesse book.

And yes, he has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - though still an great suggestion.

FWIW - he is in jail for driving violations. Lots of them.

Thank you again everyone. I'm sure he will appreciate it!
posted by suki at 6:29 PM on November 4, 2007

Nthing the Pirsig book. Blood Meridian is a great novel--and a great read--and, I would argue, quite a philosophical novel (a meditation on nihilism, belief, and evil, among other things). The Bath novels that willpie mentions are also great fun and suitably philosophical. I have that one-volume edition of The End of the Road and The Floating Opera. Both are great.

2nding Tristram Shandy--a great, funny, and often overlooked classic.
posted by wheat at 7:06 PM on November 4, 2007

Sophie's World is a novelized history-of-philosophy book. I've had it recommended as good for someone who has no background in philosophy; I've not read it, and I don't know if your friend fits that description. Anyway, worth a look.

Will Durant's History of Philosophy is fun.
Bertrand Russell's very short Problems of Philosophy is good (though short).
Plato's dialogues are good and accessible to someone who is patient enough to get through the unfamiliar format.

For nonfiction, the Jared Diamond books (Guns Germs and Steel; Collapse) are supposed to be great and thought-provoking.

great books to take on deployment, for long stretches of reading (a really good thread)
great nonfiction
great books
best intro book for many fields
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:16 PM on November 4, 2007

You guys are making me want to go to prison for a long time, so I can get some quality reading done.
posted by lostburner at 7:46 PM on November 7, 2007

« Older How do you find a new best friend?   |   Why is my harddrive empty? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.