Prison Reading

Prison Reading

In 1994, 18-year-old Damien Echols and two others were convicted of murdering three West Memphis, Arkansas boys. Echols would spend the next 18 years on death row. Many activists rallied around the “West Memphis Three”—including director Peter Jackson, actor Johnny Depp, and musician Eddie Vedder—and in 2011, after new DNA evidence surfaced, they were freed. In his new memoir, Life After Death, Echols tells of how reading helped him endure nearly two decades in prison. “I devour[ed] books by the boxful,” he writes. Here, in an exclusive interview with Zola, he shares which titles he relied on most for guidance, solace, and plain distraction.

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A Course in Miracles
Dr. Helen Shucman

“The last few years in prison my eyesight was failing, so I had to be selective of what I read. I gave up fiction and read only books on meditation and spirituality. This is a yearlong course to change the way you think. Basically Buddhism with Christian terminology.”

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The Gunslinger
Stephen King

“I read my first Stephen King book when I was 10. Most horror authors aren’t really good writers. Stephen King can do it all. In prison, I read every Stephen King book once, a few more than once. The Gunslinger is one I read over and over, until the characters felt like my friends.”

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Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom
Rachel Pollack

“This is considered the Bible of tarot. It’s sort of like Joseph Campbell. It takes you on a journey through the cards—how each one relates to different stages of growth in the human psyche. When I first read it, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever read.’”

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And the Ass Saw the Angel
Nick Cave

“I read all the people that are supposed to be the great Southern writers—Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. But I couldn’t find anything in them about the South that I knew. They were rich people to me. Then I read And the Ass Saw the Angel. This was my life, my world, the people I knew, the place that I came from. I couldn’t believe it when I found out the author was from Australia. I thought for sure he was from Arkansas or Mississippi.”

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The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Padmasambhava

“This was the first book my future wife, Lorri, sent me when I was in prison, along with The Egyptian Book of the Dead. On death row, the health care isn’t so good. They’re not going to spend the money on someone they’re killing. So when I was sick, I turned to meditation. Usually you read these books to someone who’s sick or dying to give them comfort, but you can also read them to yourself.”

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Dragons of Autumn Twilight
Margaret Weis

“When I was in jail awaiting trial, my grandfather or grandmother would bring me five paperback books from a local secondhand bookstore every week, and I’d usually have read them all by their next visit. The Dragonlance Chronicles were my first introduction to the fantasy genre; growing up, I had never read The Hobbit or played Dungeons & Dragons. I fell in love with the Dragonlance characters and storyline. They completely transported me to another place.”

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

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