Letter from the Literary editor: The Transformative Power of Books

  • @arifa_akbar

Many of us will have booked our holidays by now and bought the sun-cream too. But what to read under the palm tree or on the beach or the staycation sofa?

On holiday, we get hours of solitude which we often fill with words on a page. The other place where there is solitude – though imposed - is in prison. I recently found myself listening to an ex-prisoner talk about the “transformative” power of books inside, at a conference about reading in prisons. I learned a lot: some inmates are allowed one library trip every six months; fathers make audio books for their children at one facility; prison readings by Martina Cole are packed out. Some thought this was because her fictional world of crime is one to which prisoners can relate. But they also turn out in large numbers for John Hegley, the gentle, funny poet.

It was clear that books of all kinds are vital to many inside, partly because they fill the time, but they don’t just offer escapism – they provide solace, wisdom and mirth. We learn so many lessons – moral, emotional, empathetic – from them. These lessons have got to be good for prisoners, surely.

On each chair at this conference, there was a postcard asking us what we’d recommend a prisoner to read this summer. I suggested a marvellous collection of reflections on the Great War, co-edited by Sebastian Faulks, called A Broken World, seeing as we’re entering the centenary month of the start of hostilities.

What would help me is if you, the reader, would recommend a summer read to a prisoner too – a book you’ve just read, or enjoyed years ago. I’ll pass on your suggestions and report back. Meanwhile, enjoy losing yourself in a good book this summer.