Released from prison on appeal after twenty years, John Kamara had trouble adjusting to life outside. Everything seemed to move on fast-forward, and the colours everywhere appeared shocking after the grey of his prison walls. As Louise Shorter, a journalist who followed his case, noted, Kamara seemed utterly consumed by the efforts he’d made to secure his freedom. Leaving prison, he took with him a single set of clothes, and many sacks full of the legal documents that he’d amassed over the years. It was as though he couldn’t free himself of the paper trail that had led to his release. Shorter recalls that, in the months afterwards, Kamara often did little else than “go over the case papers which had been the focus of his life for so long.”
Kamara’s turn towards paper had started early in his sentence. He recalls that he “started writing letters the day after” being sentenced—sometimes as many as thirty a day. By the time of his release, he had composed over 300,000 of them. Early in his term, he had discovered that he could obtain stamps in lieu of visits, and subsequently encouraged his family not to visit him. Voluntarily committing himself to solitary confinement, he dedicated himself utterly to his textual entanglements. He borrowed books from the prison library and read extensively. In the years after his release, he visited many of the places that he’d read about—Warwick Castle, Pompeii, the Louvre. Interviewing Kamara in his home ten years after his conviction was quashed, Shorter notes a copy of War and Peace, a book he’d discovered in prison, sitting “on the mantelpiece above the gas fire, mid-way through [its] seventh re-read.”
Many others have also testified to the power of books and writing in helping them survive psychologically during long terms of imprisonment. Paul Blackburn, who, like Kamara, had his conviction quashed after a prolonged fight with the justice system, calls written “words … [his] salvation,” crediting his discovery of them to autodidact fellow-prisoners, who, as his interviewer, Peter Walker, puts it, “both believed in his innocence and led him towards books.” Double-murderer Erwin James, who earned an Open University History degree in prison and ultimately became a freelance journalist, recalls that he survived inside “by maintaining a strong sense of self-discipline, using the gym regularly, reading, thinking, studying and working around those in power who acted as debilitaters.”
It was also in prison that Antonio Gramsci found his métier as a political philosopher. As Giovanni Tiso records, the prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial remarked on the Italian fascist régime’s desire that he receive a long custodial sentence, one that would “render that brain of his inoperative for at least twenty years.” However, as Tiso suggests,
Far from rendering his brain inoperative, prison made a philosopher out of Gramsci. No longer able to carry out his active political duties as communist leader, he resolved from the outset to occupy as much time as he could with systematic studying and writing. Indeed in the very first letter following his arrest, addressed to the family whose apartment he was renting at the time, Gramsci asked if they could please send him some of his books and purchase for him a cheap copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. (He pointed out to them that these books would have to be stripped of their covers in order to pass inspection.) …. Later, in prison proper, he was involved in constant negotiations concerning which books he was allowed to receive and keep, how much stationery he was allowed to have, and how often he was allowed to write to his family and friends.
For Gramsci, the struggle of acquiring a small personal library in prison was also a struggle for control—however minor—over his surroundings, a way of maintaining a sense of self separate from the prison walls that confined him, a demonstration that he remained connected to the world of ideas outside.
One of the more quietly remarkable documents in the history of prison reading appeared in The British Medical Journal shortly before the end of World War II. Entitled “Enforced Leisure: The Activities of Officer Prisoners of War,” it reported the results of a survey distributed by a captive RAMC officer to his fellow prisoners in Oflag VII/B. A. R. Dearlove, the author of the article, had clearly been able to keep up-to-date to some extent with medical research, despite his circumstances. He introduces the paper as a reply of sorts to recent “articles and correspondence in the medical press on prisoner-of-war-mentality,” observing that these “have naturally caused considerable discussion in P.O.W. camps” (406). Demonstrating that he and his companions in Oflag VII/B regarded themselves as part of that community of discussion despite their incarceration, and that they were still able to access the flow of information, Dearlove tried to account for how the average officer POW spent his time. The results emphasize how assiduously Dearlove’s companions devoted themselves to keeping their brains “operative.” Behind “sleep” and “eating,” they reported spending most time engaged in “study” (2 hours and 29 minutes on average each day) and “reading” (2 hours and 6 minutes per day), both of which occupied more time than “household fatigues” and “aimless gossip” (406). Summarizing the results, Dearlove merely commented that “everybody reads to a greater or lesser extent,” books and self-directed study being the main ways in which prisoners could feel like they were achieving something during their “enforced leisure.” From “reveille [morning bugle-call] onward,” he observed, the camp’s “study rooms are continually occupied” (407).
The officers of Oflag VII/B were obviously not representative of the British and American POW population as a whole. As Dearlove notes, nearly a third of the respondents either had university degrees, or had left undergraduates courses to enlist in the war effort (406). Nevertheless, other evidence, including the memoirs of former POWs, exists to confirm the ongoing and pervasive importance of books and reading in wartime prisons. Some of this evidence appears surprisingly early. Robin Fabel records that American prisoners of the War of 1812 held in Dartmoor were avid newspaper readers (184). More surprisingly still, documents show that a number of naval ratings paid money to rent books from the circulating library that another POW had set up using his own funds (184–5). Their British overseers, meanwhile, were somewhat taken aback by the high levels of literacy that the captive sailors displayed (184).
Memoirs published by veterans of the wars of the twentieth century also testify to the importance of reading in the POW experience. Alexander Jefferson, an African-American “Tuskegee Airman” held in Stalag Luft III late in World War II, recalls how central the prison library became to his existence in camp. Understandably wary of the racial attitudes of his captors (and those of some of his fellow prisoners), Jefferson seems to have found a safe space in the camp’s “fabulous library” and reading room, where he remembers reading “fifty or sixty different books” during his five months there (76). Nearly twenty years later, Everett Alvarez, shot down in the first wave of retaliatory airstrikes following the Tonkin Gulf incident, looked to books for a similar form of psychological relief. Bored, alone, and increasingly anxious, Alvarez remembers asking one of his Vietnamese captors, “Don’t you have something I can read? … I am used to reading a lot” (74). Supplied at first with propaganda material, Alvarez was eventually given a novel about a pilot, which he fell upon and read avidly, his loneliness and lack of other mental and emotional stimulation in captivity leading him to identify completely with the central character and his travails.
Jefferson and Alvarez, of course, are also outliers in terms of the POW experience. As members of the tiny minority who decided to relate their memories in book form, it is understandable that they would give books a certain prominence in their own narratives. Even still, the amount of space given to memories of reading in these books is disproportionately small compared to the amount of time each author apparently spent reading. Judging by Jefferson’s voracious rate of book consumption, for instance, reading must have occupied a significant portion of his time. Yet the camp library, though affectionately described, occupies less than half a page of his memoir. Part of this, of course, is due to the form of the memoir itself. Readerly expectations dictate that an author sets forth an interesting and varied set of anecdotes—extended recollections of prison reading hardly fit this criterion. Military memoirs, as Yuwal Noah Harari observes, can be unreliable guides to the actual lived experiences of their writers. They “are conscious retrospective attempts to shape the narrative of war,” and therefore hardly unmediated forms of memory (303). Moreover, as David Taylor, among others, has noted, writers of military memoirs often consciously or unconsciously distort their accounts to fit pre-existing ideals of heroism and vigorous (male) physicality (302). Prisoner of war narratives, particularly in the American context, are also subject to this process. The title of Alvarez’s memoir, for instance, is the uncompromising Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot Down Over North Vietnam. The prison-camp bookworm hardly conforms to this archetype, and thus we can understand his marginalization in published accounts.
So where is the history of prison reading in early twentieth-century conflict? One answer is that it lies in the administrative records of the agencies charged with distributing books to prisoners, or censoring them before they reached their new owners. Drawing on these kinds of sources, Rainer Pöppinghege has written a fascinating account of the reading habits of German POWs in the Netherlands, some of whom were allowed to borrow books from the Göttingen University library. Elsewhere, the evidence may lie in the diaries of former POWs, to the extent that these have survived. Preliminary examination of one or two in the Imperial War Museum indicates that there may be a wealth of material there waiting to be analysed.
A. R. Dearlove, “Enforced Leisure: A Study of the Activities of Officer Prisoners of War.” British Medical Journal (24 March 1945): 406–409.
Robin F. A. Fabel, “Self-Help in Dartmoor: Black and White Prisoners in the War of 1812.” Journal of the Early Republic 9, no. 2 (1989): 165–90.
Yuwal Noah Harari, “Military Memoirs: A Historical Overview of the Genre from the Middle Ages to the Late Modern Era.” War in History 14, no. 3 (2007): 289–309.
Alexander Jefferson and Lewis Carlson, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Anthony S. Pitch, Everett Alvarez, and Everett Alvarez Jr, Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot Down Over North Vietnam. 1989; repr. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005.
Rainer Pöppinghege, “The Battle of the Books: Supplying Prisoners of War.” In Mary Hammond and Shaf Towheed, eds., Publishing in the First World War: Essays in Book History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
David Taylor, “From Fighting the War to Writing the War: From Glory to Guilt?” Contemporary British History 23, no. 3 (2009): 293–313.