Earlier this week, I signed a petition, directed at justice secretary Chris Grayling, urging him to reconsider the rule changes which ban prisoners from receiving books and other items from outside. This issue is getting quite a lot of attention in the media – social and otherwise – and a large number of high-profile writers (including Jeffrey Archer, one of the few to have done time in both jail and Parliament) have joined the campaign. Now, I am utterly unqualified to comment on the treatment of prisoners so I’m not going to try – I’ve put a few links below for more information. The reason I signed the petition has less to do with my views on rehabilitation, and a lot more to do with a gut reaction: quite simply, the idea of being denied books strikes horror deep into my soul. Books can provide so many things: education, enlightenment, escape (metaphorically speaking). As an avid reader and aspiring author, they are such an important part of my life that I can’t imagine living without them. Well, actually, I can, but I don’t want to (a vivid imagination can be both a blessing and a curse). And so, I regard restricting access to books as a punishment of extreme cruelty, a prison of the mind, which I wouldn’t inflict on even the most hardened criminal.
I’m pretty sure that others who support this campaign will share my abject horror of booklessness. Indeed, many writers have exploited such feelings, since love of reading is about the only thing you can be reasonably confident your readers will have in common. Just think of the awful parents in Matilda who try to make their daughter watch TV rather than read, or the ‘firemen’ of Fahrenheit 451 who burn all books they find. For my money, the best (for which read stomach-churningly horrifying) depiction of book deprivation can be found in The Handmaid’s Tale, a book which literally gave me nightmares and sends my pulse racing and my palms sweating even as I type these words. And no, I am not exaggerating, not in the slightest. Thank you, Margaret Atwood.
But is there such a thing as too much reverence for books? This is the question raised by an intriguing birthday present I received last week from a writer friend. It’s a book called ‘Wreck this Journal’ and it has the tagline ‘To Create is to Destroy’. It consists of a series of instructions to, as the name suggests, wreck it: one page tells you to rip it, another tells you to smear your dinner on it, another tells you to take the book in the shower with you. As the photograph shows, I’ve made a start, but, indoctrinated by my father into treating books as precious things, it was a struggle. Once I got started, however, I have to admit that it’s a strangely liberating experience, to defy my own reverence for printed pages and just unleash creative destruction upon them. It’s a great idea which I encourage all writers to try. But, here’s the thing, you have to develop that reverence to start with, and you’ll never get it if you’re denied the books.
Article by Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which started the campaign: http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2014/03/23/comment-why-has-grayling-banned-prisoners-being-sent-books
Authors’ letter to the Telegraph: http://www.howardleague.org/letter-to-the-telegraph/
Guardian article about the campaign: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/26/prison-books-ban-writers-chris-grayling
The petition: http://tinyurl.com/ncgtgtv