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6 books every prison should stock
What do jailbirds read? Everything from Kafka to Cheever, says memoirist (and former prison librarian) Avi Steinberg
Avi Steinberg was a freelance obituary writer before taking a position as a prison librarian.
Avi Steinberg was a freelance obituary writer before taking a position as a prison librarian.
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oments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (Penguin, $12). Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi described these character sketches as “bizarre, marginal moments of truce.” It will surprise people, even prisoners, to learn that such small truces happen even in a prison as hellish as Auschwitz. Levi offers a surprise per page. To wit: a man who was driven in a private car to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.

Falconer by John Cheever (Vintage, $14). This neglected novel deals, in part, with the problem of reading in prison. Its addict-professor protagonist sits in a cell with an open book but cannot decipher a word. For him, books in prison serve a peculiar function: They are there for him to close, to put away. Only then can he begin the painful task of self-examination.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Oxford, $14). Nobody understood captivity like Kafka. The Metamorphosis gets at the essence of imprisonment. The experience of waking up in a cell in a prison uniform for the first time is not at all dissimilar to Gregor Samsa’s waking to find himself transformed into a “gigantic insect.”

Newjack by Ted Conover (Vintage, $15). Conover’s account of his year working as an officer at Sing Sing is a classic of prison reportage. One might expect that a firsthand account by a prison guard could attract inmates who want to learn some jailers’ tricks. In the process, they might also come to appreciate the plight of the officer.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $16). Heller’s war novel is full of characters and scenarios that resonate with the absurdity of prison life. The description of this character sounds as though it could have been written about an inmate or guard: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous, and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”

Lonely Planet Guide to Rome (Lonely Planet, $19). With a good guidebook and a little imagination, an inmate can travel anywhere in the world. Throw in an instruction guide on yoga, and he could imagine a journey of spiritual renewal on par with Elizabeth Gilbert’s in Eat, Pray, Love.

Avi Steinberg's new memoir, Running the Books, recounts his two-year stint as head librarian at a county prison in Boston

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