Leading authors have written to the Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, in a mass protest at the ongoing restrictions on prisoners receiving books.
Writers including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Hermione Lee have written postcards to Mr Grayling detailing which book they would like to send to a prisoner and why.
Restrictions on families and friends sending books to prisoners were introduced by the Ministry of Justice in November 2013 as part of a crackdown on what ministers have described as prisoners’ “perks and privileges”.
In recent weeks many of the UK’s leading authors including PEN/Pinter Prize winners Carol Ann Duffy, David Hare and Hanif Kureishi, former judges of English PEN’s annual prison writing competition Mark Haddon and Jackie Kay, and many others have spoken out in protest against the restrictions on prisoners receiving books.
The Howard League for Penal Reform and English PEN have requested a meeting with Mr Grayling to discuss changes to the policy.
In order to underline the importance of literacy and reading in prisons, English PEN and the Howard League asked prominent authors and visitors during this week’s London Book Fair to write a postcard to Chris Grayling detailing which book they would send to a prisoner and why.
Suggestions ranged from Long Walk to Freedom: the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, to The Little Prince, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
“There is now widespread political support for the Lord Chancellor to think again.
“Prisoners should be able to receive books and other essentials from their loved ones. There is no evidence that this caused any security problems in the past.”
Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN said:
“These inspiring recommendations are a reminder that books can be a lifeline.
“The continuing ban deprives prisoners of access to all the possibilities of learning and literature that these choices represent. It's time for the government to reverse its policy.”
Author recommendations – This is what they wrote…
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, about an imagined super controlled state. Could happen. We should be careful.
I would recommend Primo Levi's If This is a Man. It is a masterly evocation of something much worse than prison: murderous enslavement for the crime of being born.
My books for Prisoners recommendation would be Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. The knight of the mean streets is in deep trouble here and somehow sees his way through…
My Books for Prisoners recommendation would be The 39 Steps by John Buchan: a fast-paced, thrilling adventure that’s difficult to put down. John Buchan is not only a great storyteller, but a great writer (and it wasn’t even his first profession).
My suggestion is: The Man Who Counted by Malba Tahan.
Literacy is important in prisons. So is numeracy. In fact, 65 per cent of prisoners have numeracy skills below what is expected of an 11-year-old, compared to 48 per cent for literacy. My suggestion is The Man Who Counted, which is an enchanting mix of storytelling and simple mathematics. Originally published in Brazil in 1938, it is a timeless classic.
Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Because of the beautiful language, the incredible heart, the pain and bravery and the way her – everyone's – basic human resilience shines through. That's a lesson for everyone. (Chris Grayling more than anyone!)
As an editor and contributor to Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, (www.insidetime.org) I know just how important books are to prisoners and how difficult it can be to get into prison libraries. We're publishing a poem on the subject in our next issue. I would nominate Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard. It tells the story of Jim who is separated from his parents at the fall of Shanghai and taken to a Japanese internment camp. The novel is totally gripping from start to finish so that the reader would feel far removed for at least a few hours from the confines of his cell. Jim's survival in a terrifying, indeed nightmarish situation, would, I think, appeal to many prisoners who find themselves locked up and facing very difficult times. Because a brilliant film was made of it, I suspect some may have missed the excitement and satisfaction of reading the book.
BREWERS' ROGUES, VILLAINS AND ECCENTRICS: An A-Z of Roguish Britons through the Ages by Willie Donaldson. Outrageously funny, and beautifully written, it provides an excellent view of the underbelly of British society in the second half of the twentieth century. Not precisely a moral book, it's intelligent, pleasantly shocking and, above all, life-affirming.
I would recommend giving prisoners Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. It’s a true account of a disastrous climb in the South American Andes in which the two climbers face terrible choices, hit rock bottom, facing death, yet manage to survive. I can imagine prisoners would find a lot to relate to in the story of finding a way up and out from the worst moment of your life.
I’d send the Prison Trilogy by Pramoedya Ananta Toer – written in the head and remembered while on Buru prison island, but denied pen, paper and books.
I'd send John Lanchester's Capital, because it's a cracking good read, accessible, diverting, and very funny about money, football, parking attendants, bankers, immigrants, and old folk like me. It's a satiric view of how we live now, and reminds you how entertaining and informative fiction can be.
I'd also send Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to remind us all that some of our greatest classics were written in prison, in the Slough of Despond.
Moby Dick – for the width of vision, both the horizonless sea and a vast understanding of the multiple nature of humanity.
Also Bartleby, The Scrivener – the great refuser might well give some pleasure to prisoers.
Catch 22 – the book describing the impossible craziness of human beings and their institutions could find its perfect audience.
Alice Through the Looking Glass – because obviously.
The Beckett Trilogy – to pass the time. (And for grim humour)
I would send Jimmy Boyle's visceral autobiography, A Sense of Freedom. It describes his journey from a violent, criminal youth to the degradation, shame and remorse he experienced in Scotland's most draconian prisons – and the redemption eventually delivered by literature and art in the special unit at Barlinnie. It is a book everyone concerned with this current debate should read when the most wretched of our fellow citizens, who have nothing, are now being told they have less than nothing.
Carol Ann Duffy
I’ve chosen The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. It can be read straight through, or simply dipped into; it’s moving and sometimes funny and always full of wonder and compassion. I wanted a book that could become someone’s companion – a book full of extraordinary stories that lodge immovably in the reader’s head. Lissa Evans
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. For excitement, comedy, decency and hope.
Waste, by Hasan Ali Toptaş
Because it evokes a world as seen by the powerless but beautifully
The book I would send to a prisoner is one that I did send to a prisoner in a US prison. It was a large coffee table book, a comprehensive history of art. Prisons are soulless places, visually, there is little beauty in them. Many prisoners have seen little of life. The art book became a great hit with other inmates for it opened windows into Florentine landscapes, vases of sunflowers, battle scenes, blocks of colour, and an enigmatic smile. The prisoner I sent it to left it behind for the prison library when he was released, where, he told me recently, it is still doing good.
Master and Margarita by Bulgakov
The Snowden Files, Luke Harding. The book describes how an overweening state can behave in an undemocratic manner (among other things)
My Books for Prisoners recommendation is Kamila Shamsie's A God in Every Stone. A great, original novel in the skin of a lion.
The Great Escape
The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad. Because it shows the danger and treachery and fear in English public life.
Speaking as an Aussie of convict stock (I’m the crème de la crim) – whose ancestors were guilty of one thing – not running fast enough, my book recommendation for prisoners would be, obviously, The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill.
The Diary of Anne Frank
Because it’s a story of courage in captivity
The Grass Arena by John Healy. It's a long and brilliant postcard from hell. A brutal childhood, alcoholism, a London underworld – this is what it's like to touch bottom, then find your way up through the game of chess.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. Because people are not what they seem at first sight – and because of second chances.
I'd give a prisoner Moab Is My Washpot by Stehen Fry. The memoir opens with the information that he is to be arrested and sent to prison, and from there on is a cracking autobiography of Fry's early life including what led him to such a crisis. If a prisoner read that Stephen Fry had done time inside in the context of much else besides, perhaps that might help counter the simplistic image that convicted criminals feel society imposes upon all of them. Plus they would have a good laugh along the way, enjoying 100,000 words of really great writing – (apart from the first four which make up its off-putting title).
I’d like to send Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? It shows that despite very difficult beginnings, a tough adolescence and even very rough patches later on, life can be meaningful, satisfying and turning things around is enormously satisfying…..
Lord of the Rings. The three books are so much richer and more thoughtful than the films. And they are really absorbing; interestingly written, with different textures: many different people can find many different things in them.
50 Shades of Grayling – I presume the Lord Chancellor appreciates bondage
My Books for Prisoners recommendation would be Rumi's Masnavi, it is composed of six books of poetry.
The style is extraordinary, interwoven with stories within stories. The themes Rumi deals with (such as ego/nafs, death, body, love, birth, beauty) are both universal and timeless. His peaceful voice speaks to our hearts and minds across all national and religious borders, and challenges head-on the teachings that promote bigotry, xenophobia and discrimination.
Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
This book is so imaginative it changes the way you think about humanity. It’s an amazing book.
Ludmila Ulitskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter. The true story of a man who survived Nazi imprisonment and became a Catholic priest.
Annie Proulx, The Shipping News. This is the story of an ungainly misfit who redeems his shattered life. Feisty, comic and without piety.
Alan Johnson's This Boy, his straightforward account of growing up in real poverty in London in the 1950s, father scarpered, brilliant Scouser mother dies young, teenage sister brings him up – an amazing and inspiring story.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun – a fantastic novel about surviving the worst imaginable jail based on the authors’ interviews with Moroccan detainees.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
I would like to send them The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka ed. Nahum Glazer. Kafka is the brilliant storyteller about fear, justice, and the law. He is illuminating and often very funny. His insights are startling, and his baffling scenarios oddly familiar, even banal. We all recognise something of ourselves in his characters and situations.
The book I would recommend is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It's long, leisurely, but absolutely gripping: a novel in which to lose yourself for hours at a time. It's also hugely compassionate, with richly-realised characters who are – like all of us – full of flaws.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
The reason why is because Malcolm X himself was sentenced to quite a long stint in prison but whilst there he educated himself by reading many books and when he emerged from prison he wanted to do good for his community. He also lived an incredibly fascinating life!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan. Because it’s life changing.