Leading writers support Books for Prisoners campaign

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 UK prisoners receiving books

Writers including Martin Amis, Hermione Lee and Ian McEwan have written postcards to Chris Grayling MP 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.

English PEN and the Howard League for Penal Reform have requested a meeting with Chris 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 range from Long Walk to Freedom: the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, to The Little Prince, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. A full list of authors’ responses follows.

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.’

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: ‘There is now widespread political support for the Lord Chancellor to think again. All we are asking is for the previous arrangement, which relied on governor discretion rather than a blanket ban, to be reinstated so that books and other essentials can once more be sent to prisoners by their loved ones.’

English PEN and the Howard League for Penal Reform continue to call on the Ministry of Justice to reverse this policy.




Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, about an imagined super controlled state. Could happen. We should be careful.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown


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.

Martin Amis


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…

Lisa Appignanesi


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).

Jeffrey Archer


The Greek Myths — a powerful, polyvalent cinema of the strengths and foibles of human nature (and divine).

Chloe Aridjis 


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.

Alex Bellos


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.

Rachel Billington


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.

Terence Blacker


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.

Tracy Chevalier


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.

Jim Crace


I would like to suggest either Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock or The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennet, both of which take on board issues of good and evil, moral dilemmas and so on, but have strikingly believable characters and stories so never seem to be preachy or difficult.

Louise Doughty


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.

Margaret Drabble


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)

Jenny Diski


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.

Adam Foulds


Thackeray: Vanity Fair.  Because it’s a great novel, takes a rather long time to read, and offers an escape into another world altogether.
Michael Frayn



Waste, by Hasan Ali Toptaş

Because it evokes a world as seen by the powerless but beautifully

Maureen Freely


I would send to my friend in prison Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. (He may have seen the movie.) It’s a drama at sea with two great central characters, packed with danger, adventure, and the explosive emotions that arise when men are cooped up in a confined space – in this case, the little ship.

Victoria Glendinning


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.

Linda Grant


Master and Margarita by Bulgakov

Viv Groskop


My Book for Prisoners recommendation would be  Walking Home by Simon Armitage.

This book would bring a sense of the outdoors, fresh air and freedom to a prisoner, combining prose, poetry and photographs to open up new horizons.

Miriam Halahmy


The Snowden Files, Luke Harding. The book describes how an overweening state can behave in an undemocratic manner (among other things)

Luke Harding


I recommend two books:

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

Be Careful What You Wish For by Jeffrey Archer

Ronald Harwood


Nicola Barker short stories  – because they are funny and subversive, slightly mad and all brilliant – The Three Button Trick

OR Helen Simpson short stories – A Bunch of Fives

They are truly marvellous stories – all of them – and slim volumes.

Victoria Hislop


My Books for Prisoners recommendation is Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. A great, original novel in the skin of a lion.

Rachel Holmes


The Great Escape

Hanif Kureishi


The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad. Because it shows the danger and treachery and fear in English public life.

Hermione Lee


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.  

Kathy Lette


The Diary of Anne Frank

Because it’s a story of courage in captivity

Sophie Mayer


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.

Ian McEwan


I would recommend sending a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis to a prisoner.  When I taught in prisons we did an improvised version of this which revealed more wit, intelligence and humour amongst the inmates than anything I would expect to find amongst the withered philistines in the Mnistry of Justice.

Pauline Melville


Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. Because people are not what they seem at first sight – and because of second chances.

Andrew Motion


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).

John O’Farrell


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…..

Susie Orbach


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.

Ruth Padel


50 Shades of Grayling – I presume the Lord Chancellor appreciates bondage

Martin Rowson


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.

Elif Shafak


I would send a copy of Arthur Miller’s first collection of plays. This includes his masterpieces A View from the Bridge, All my Sons, The Crucible, and Death of a Salesman.

In these plays, Miller writes with wit and humanity about the dignity of human life and the horror of injustice.

Reading plays demands a sense of empathy that is in itself an act of the imagination.

It strikes me that challenging our prisoners to exercise their humanity and empathy and imagination and test their own humanity is the best way to reduce crime. Which is, I think, pretty much what prison is for.

Simon Stephens


Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut

This book is so imaginative it changes the way you think about humanity. It’s an amazing book.

Degna Stone


Ludmila Ulitskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter. The true story of a man who survived Nazi imprisonment and became a Catholic priest.

Arch Tait


Annie Proulx, The Shipping News. This is the story of an ungainly misfit who redeems his shattered life. Feisty, comic and without piety.

Colin Thubron


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.

Claire Tomalin


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.

Boyd Tonkin


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

Joanna Trollope


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.

Marina Warner


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.

Sarah Waters


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!

Alex Wheatle


The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan. Because it’s life changing.

Evie Wyld


For more information on the Books for Prisoners campaign and suggested actions, visit the Howard League for Prison Reform.


About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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