The best books about imprisonment (both literal and figurative)

Virginia Reeves Author Of Work Like Any Other
By Virginia Reeves

The Books I Picked & Why

The Executioner's Song

By Norman Mailer

Book cover of The Executioner's Song

Why this book?

I first read The Executioner’s Song in my early twenties, and scenes from it still linger in my memory. Though Mailer takes fictional liberties, the narrative closely follows the true story of Gary Gilmore, a murderer and thief who met his end by firing squad in Utah State Prison. We (as a society) are often quick to judge and categorize “criminals,” though the line between people who’ve served time and those who haven’t is much fainter than most believe. Gilmore commits heinous crimes and he’s still human. Monsters aren’t born, they’re made, and this book does a great job exposing that creation story.

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Then the Fish Swallowed Him

By Amir Ahmadi Arian

Book cover of Then the Fish Swallowed Him

Why this book?

Set during the 2005 bus-driver strikes in Iran, this book explores imprisonment at nearly every level—from the confinement of a totalitarian regime to the physical and psychological torture of a political prisoner, to the locked doors of one’s own mind, to the escape sought (and sometimes found) in heroine. What sticks with me most, however, is the interior exploration of the main character, Yunus, and the way seemingly small decisions lead to enormous consequences. 

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By Marilynne Robinson

Book cover of Jack

Why this book?

I don’t think I’ve made a list of books that doesn’t include something by Marilynne Robinson. Though linked to her other Gilead books, Jack can easily be read on its own, and it does an incredible job exploring the after-effects of prison time against the backdrop of racial (and societal) inequality. Both a love story and a rumination on regret, this novel takes an unflinching look at the prisons we build around ourselves and the difficulties we face when we try to escape.

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Katalin Street

By Magda Szabo, Len Rix

Book cover of Katalin Street

Why this book?

Szabó is another of my all-time favorite authors, and I return to her books again and again. Katalin Street explores the devastating effects of Germany’s occupation of Budapest upon three different, neighboring families. Characters are imprisoned in a variety of ways: Bálint serves time in a prison camp; the Elekes family serves time in the small apartment to which they’re moved during the occupation; everyone serves time in the prison of their memories, including the ghost of sweet Henriette, who haunts the narrative. 

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Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire

By Robert Perkinson

Book cover of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire

Why this book?

This is the only piece of nonfiction on this list, but the plot is as tortuous and epic as any good novel. This book helped me understand the vast inequities inherent in our prison industry—from mandatory sentencing to privatization to the abhorrent practice of convict leasing, aptly known as “slavery by another name.” If there’s any hope of rehabilitating the country’s prison system, we must learn its history—as ugly and unjust as it might be. This is a hard read, but an immensely important one. 

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