Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Books Can Set You Free

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Books Can Set You Free

Article excerpt

It was January 1986 and my mother was in the Penguin bookshop in York, lost and distressed. She had just been to visit me at Armley prison in Leeds and she knew I would need more than prayers to keep me from going under.

An assistant came over to her and she explained that her 17-year-old son had just been given 18 months' youth custody for a botched robbery. She told him I was a bit alternative, and he picked out Waterlandby Graham Swift. She sent the book to the young offender institution to which I'd been transferred, Deerbolt, in County Durham. Swift's brooding alternative history had me gripped.

My mother returned to the bookshop the next week. This time the assistant suggested Less Than Zero, which told the story of a group of damaged Californian rich kids. I'd never read a novel in which the characters took drugs and listened to indie music and I devoured it in one sitting.

Every Friday the senior officer on Unit 3 handed over a parcel sent by my mother, which contained Melody Maker, the NME and a Picador paperback. This parcel was my air supply. Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden unsettled me from the first sentence: "I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way." The prose was flat and unemotional, the story so close to the bone that it took me a week to read rather than one night.

Three months into my sentence, I wrote to my friend Maria: "I've already read about 25 this year whereas I hardly read any books before I came in." These gifts of books helped my mother, too: she could believe that good might come out of my time away.

I probably wasn't the typical Deerbolt inmate. Few of its 400 inmates were fortunate enough to receive fat parcels. But books were still highly valued in an institution committed to rehabilitation. …

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