It is a special kind of ignorance that classes reading as a privilege that should be banned. Reading is not a privilege, nor is it a right. It is an act of consciousness. The symbols and the medium need not be letters and paper. Human beings read everything that they look at. Books, newspapers, pictures, faces, eyes, actions, landscapes, patterns of behaviour, groups of individuals, subliminal messages, reading is the act of sensing and interpreting.
“Man is by nature a social animal”, says Aristotle, and reading is how we converse with the world, even in silence. Reading is not a drawbridge to be retracted nor can its object be erased. A text, once read, lives on in the mind far longer than the act of reading it. Books are the captured voices of others and they can lead us anywhere we need or wish to go. Why then deprive prisoners of guidance? That is not an act of punishment, nor even of vengeance. To guide the misguided must be one purpose of a justice system.
To those prisoners who are allowed to read, or who seek a book to accompany them in prison as they pass time: two of the best companions you could ask for are a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible. Both are untempting and intimidating books to many readers on the outside but they are the richest and most rewarding books when read with time. Read them slowly, read them for pleasure. If it is all that is available to you, then you are rich: “Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need – / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” (here).
I can’t imagine how I would react to imprisonment. Not well. Bryan Keenan’s amazing An Evil Cradling dispelled my teenage idea that being kidnapped might be an interesting path to self-discovery. It is tempting, however, to think of the books that could be read, particularly by someone starting reading in earnest for the first time, in prison.
Perhaps one should start with stoic literature. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy is a book I read at least once a year as a free person. It contains among my favourite lines of literature: “If you seek the help of the surgeon, you must first expose the wound” and I think I would revisit it as often as I could if I were in prison.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius might also offer solace and a model for survival: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy.” Or Fox’s Book of Martyrs, on surviving and internalising persecution: “Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.” He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, ‘Jesus, I believe’; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.”
Or perhaps there is more comfort to be had in the literature of imprisonment, exile or disaster providing a kind of commonality of experience. Kafka’s The Trial or Voltaire’s Candide might be my first ports of call (“I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three, two were priests.”). I might attempt Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo, though I have never managed yet, or branch out into the literature of metaphorical imprisonment, Zóla’s L’Oeuvre, in which a young artist is imprisoned by his artistic ambition, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or more literally, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Perhaps instead, the literature of escapism would be more enticing, giving life to J M G Le Clézio’s contention that literature is the true travel and opening up worlds real and unreal for the reader to escape into.
Either way, once read, a book can never be taken from you. So a lesson for all of us from the deprivation of literature from prisons is to read as much and as widely as we can, while we can. And for those suffering a ban on reading, perhaps they can take solace in the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a good book, I write one.”