Books for Blago: The Most Popular Books in Prison

Books for Blago: The Most Popular Books in Prison

Marvelously crooked former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is to begin his 14-year prison sentence tomorrow. The unfortunately coiffed former pol was convicted of 17 corruption counts after an extensive FBI investigation concluded that, among other things, Blagojevich tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. But with a long stretch of prison life ahead, Blagojevich, who wrote a memoir during his trial, will have less time for dealing and plenty for reading. Could be worse for a guy known to drop Kipling quotes. Bookish asked prison librarians about who reads what behind bars and why—turns out, romance has a lot of fans, but so does Thucydides.

Glennor Shirley, the library coordinator for Maryland Correctional Education Libraries, says that most inmates weren’t big readers before arriving in prison, but once they hit the library, they go for the standards. “Anything on the New York Times Best Seller list,” Shirley says. “They love Danielle Steel. I think, to some extent, they’re living vicariously through books.” Riker’s Island, New York City’s lock-up, has an active literary community, says Nicholas Higgins, the Supervising Librarian for the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services Program. Just like on the outside, word-of-mouth recommendations bolster a book’s desirability, which might account for some of the unusual favorites Higgins and Shirley say are beloved behind bars. Among them, “Sacred Poems and Prayers of Love” by Mary Ford-Grabowsky. This collection of spiritual verse from around the world was so popular that Shirley stocked up on a few dozen copies before it went out of print. What else is in high demand?

The History of the Peloponnesian War
When this Greek classic caught on at Riker’s, they couldn’t keep enough copies on the shelves, says Higgins. He’s not sure why this particular book was in such high demand, but he speculates that its historical perspective on war and military technology holds appeal.

Books about art—especially calligraphy
Many inmates work on art projects to help pass the time. “They love calligraphy,” Shirley says, “I could never have enough on calligraphy, or anything on art, actually…It’s unbelievable when you see some of the artwork they have produced.”

“Behold, a Pale Horse” by William Cooper
“It’s an underground favorite,” says Higgins, noting that inmates tend to enjoy “a conspiracy theory sort of bent.” Cooper, a former U.S. naval intelligence officer, purports to uncover government secrets about UFOs and the JFK assassination.

Anything by Zane
Zane is a powerhouse of street lit—a genre of gritty narratives heavy on sex, violence and street culture that has become very popular behind bars in the past decade. A lot of young inmates “seem to identify,” Shirley says.

Westerns are perennial favorites, Shirley says, “but I’ve never been able to understand why.” She speculates that westerns—full of violence, drinking, hard-living, fetching lasses and general lawlessness—are “equivalent to what the urban novel is now.”

Books about writing and getting published
Inmates who begin reading often develop an interest in writing, Shirley says, so it’s not a surprise that books on writing and the business of getting published are in high demand. “You know, many of them are going to be writers,” she says, “and they want to get all the information on the writing craft. Many of them, in their lonely cells, express what they need.”


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