While traveling last week, I picked up the June issue of Harper's Magazine and found within its pages an interesting article by Harper's Contributing Editor Thomas Frank. The piece is all about what young war criminal Omar Khadr, who has spent some years Guantanamo prison being politely asked questions, and gently deradicalized, will be reading as part of the process to release him back into Canadian society. Frank notes that while Canadian authorities are having him read such classics as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, American officials are suggesting that he read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Frank goes on in the article to make all of the best points about having a convicted war criminal, or for that matter any criminal who is serving hard time, read Stephen R. Covey's self-improvement tome. He also mentions how much has changed since the 1950s when America was working to deradicalize prisoners with anti-communist literature. It's really a fantastic article that left me asking friends and strangers alike a very awkward question this week: What sorts of books would you have prisoners read before they reentered society?
It's a good question in theory, but it a terrible question in practice. By asking, I found (a hearty "duh" at myself) that people have such differing views of what it means to be an American, living in a great mental divide about whether or not they even pinpoint enough current American values to even imagine an attempt to "deradicalize" a prisoner.
Even thinking about the books I would have such a person read, I found myself stumped. Where the Red Fern Grows for a lesson on empathy and nature? Fight Club about when radicalism goes too far? Am I even reading these books correctly?
After a week of thinking about this, I gave up, and decided instead to do some research about what prisoners can, and do read. What I found out was pretty interesting, although I wish there had been more information. (I've come to realize that maybe I'm not the best Googler. Is that a thing? It must be, because I am a terrible Googler. Is there like a Boolean search I can do?)
First, I began looking around for information about information from Thomas Frank. Do prisoners actually read 7 Habits? That search led me to an interesting article in Time about Guantanamo prisoners reading a ton of Harry Potter. What's up with that, you ask? Here's one answer:
"Candace Gorman, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who represents Abdul Al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan national detained at Guantánamo since June 2002, says her client told her during a 2007 visit that the Harry Potter series was his favorite. At the time, Gorman said the library didn't have an Arabic edition of one of the six volumes. "The guards were telling him things that had happened in the book, but he didn't know if it was true or not," she explains. Gorman herself donated a copy of the missing volume to the library in the hope that Al-Ghizzawi would be able to read it. The prisoner likened his own plight to the inmates of Azkaban, she says, while then U.S. President George W. Bush was his own version of Voldemort."
You can read the source article by H. Candace Gorman here at In These Times.
The Times Online wrote in 2009 that the Harry Potter series topped the list of secular books read in Gitmo.
I wonder how J.K. Rowling feels about this, or if it's just a testament to the awesomeness and insane popularity of her books? Although, looking at this list of 30 books for prisoners, it makes sense that prisoner's would (as they are still entertainable humans) rather read something more exciting.
My research also led me to an article in the Guardian about a recent memoir by Avi Steinberg, a Harvard graduate turned prison librarian, called Steinberg's Running the Books. This is definitely something I'd like to get my hands on. Prison librarian, what a surreal job that must be.
Finally, if you're curious, here is a hand-written list of books read between the years of 2007 and 2010 by a prisoner named Anthony. I'm not sure how he got them on the internet, if he's still incarcerated, or what he even went to jail for. I do know, however, that he is an artist.
Courtney Algeo is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis, and is well aware that there is no thesis here. Sometimes that's okay.